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Afghanistan: Red Cross Prepares To Meet Arrested Aid Workers

Twenty-four workers from the international aid organization Shelter Now are in their third week in detention in Afghanistan after being arrested for allegedly preaching Christianity. Previous efforts by diplomats to visit the Afghan and foreign aid workers have been unsuccessful, but Taliban officials said this week they would allow workers from the Kabul office of the Red Cross/Red Crescent to see the detainees. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier today spoke to an official at the Red Cross/Red Crescent and asked him what role the organization might play.

Prague, 24 August 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Twenty-four workers -- four Germans, two Australians, two Americans, and 16 Afghans -- from the German-based aid group Shelter Now International are nearing the end of their third week in detention in Afghanistan. The 24 were arrested by the Taliban for allegedly preaching Christianity and trying to win converts from among the Afghan Muslim population that, officially, they were to provide with humanitarian aid.

Attempts made last week by diplomats from Australia, Germany, and the United States to visit the detainees were unsuccessful. Parents of some of the foreign detainees are now seeking permission from Taliban officials in Pakistan to make private visits.

The 24 detainees have not seen any foreign representatives -- either from their governments or foreign aid organizations working in Afghanistan -- since their arrest. But the Taliban's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said this week that representatives from the International Committee of the Red Cross/Red Crescent, or ICRC, will be able to see them, although the ministry did not say when. The ministry also did not specify whether the visit would be limited to just the eight foreigners or include all 24 detainees.

Mario Musa is the communications officer for the ICRC in Afghanistan. He told RFE/RL today that he expects the visit to take place soon:

"Recently, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs made two statements saying that we will be allowed [to visit the detainees]. But so far, [since] the second statement -- the one that was made yesterday (23 August) -- we have not been contacted officially. I think probably tomorrow or the next day some steps will be taken."

Musa said the ICRC's non-political mandate prohibits the organization from seeking the release of people in custody. Musa said the ICRC is able to simply visit detainees, such as prisoners of war, to check on their condition and possibly provide for some basic needs.

"The aim of seeing [the detainees] is, of course, to bring them comfort, to bring anything they might need, to see their condition -- be it [their] health, be it [their] psychological [state] -- and [to see] the detention place, and then, just in case, to discuss with authorities if there is any recommendation to be made."

The arrests of the Shelter Now workers have caused the Taliban to view foreign aid organizations working in Afghanistan with some suspicion. Taliban officials have already named the United Nations World Food Program as one of the foreign aid organizations under investigation for allegedly aiding Shelter Now in its proselytizing efforts. The World Food Program called the allegations "baseless."

Still, constant Taliban broadcasts warning Afghan citizens about foreigners have increased suspicions among the population and caused some aid organizations to urge their workers to show extra caution when working among Afghans.

Musa said the ICRC's long experience in Afghanistan has led to good relations with both the ruling Taliban militia and the Northern Alliance opposition group, which is fighting the Taliban in the north of the country:

"The ICRC has been in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years and is very well respected by both parties in this conflict."

He added that the ICRC's reputation has apparently exempted the organization from the suspicions being leveled at other aid groups.

The proposed ICRC visit may bring comfort to the detainees but their case is far from being resolved. Taliban officials say they discovered among the aid workers' possessions Bibles translated into Farsi and Pashto as well as dozens of video and audio tapes about the life of Jesus and a book entitled "Sharing Your Faith With a Muslim."

Proselytizing Christianity is strictly forbidden under the Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law. The Afghan detainees may face the death penalty for their participation in the group. The foreigners could face jail terms or expulsion.