35 Afghans Arrested for Supporting Christianity

Taliban Regime Continues Wave of Repression

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, SEPT. 12, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Afghanistan´s Taliban regime arrested an additional 35 Afghan humanitarian workers last weekend, the Compass agency reported.

With these additional arrests, there have now been more than 50 Afghans imprisoned by the Muslim fundamentalist regime, since early August, accused of supporting the Christian missionary endeavor.

International aid workers, who asked not to be identified, said that the 35 Afghans, employed by the recently banned International Assistance Mission (IAM), were taken into custody at the Planning Ministry office in Kabul, when they came to get their salary payment.

The sources, quoted yesterday by the Associated Press, said a state-run radio broadcast had ordered IAM Afghan staff members to come and collect their pay at the Planning Ministry, which coordinates all foreign aid organizations. «When the Afghans showed up, they were arrested,» the Associated Press reported.

In a separate report from Associated Press-Pakistan (APP), an expatriate aid worker said she knew of some 15 to 17 IAM Afghan employees who had been arrested by the Taliban´s Religious Police since the Christian relief group was shut down Aug. 31.

«I do not know the reason for their arrest, but they were taken into custody during the first week of September, and have not been seen since then,» the aid worker told APP.

The Taliban have yet to confirm or comment on the reported detentions.

IAM, a private volunteer agency, had 117 professionals from 17 countries working in five Afghan cities, and employed some 300 Afghans in its health, economic development, education, and rehabilitation projects. Its entire staff was expelled from the country 10 days ago.

The Taliban have accused IAM and SERVE, another Christian agency, of links with the Shelter Now relief organization, which was shut down in early August for allegedly trying to convert Muslim Afghans to Christianity. The regime´s religious police arrested eight foreigners and 16 Afghans working for Shelter Now.

Speaking from Kabul, a spokesman with the International Committee of the Red Cross told Compass that their office had no «precise information at this moment» about the alleged arrest of the 35 IAM Afghan staff members.

A senior Taliban official told the Associated Press last week that some of the 16 Afghans working for Shelter Now would either be sentenced to life in prison or death by hanging. Those in the greatest danger are the Afghans who were involved in teaching local languages to foreigners, local sources said.

Although the Taliban claim to have «strong evidence» that Shelter Now´s foreign staff were preaching Christianity, they have not presented proof that any Afghans had actually converted. Muslims who convert to Christianity face the death penalty here.

Journalists under arrest

Meanwhile, some 12 foreign journalists covering the Kabul trial of the eight foreign Christians were barred Tuesday from leaving their hotel. Their rooms were searched for cameras, film and videos.

Taliban authorities said the journalists were being punished for taking photographs of the foreign defendants when they appeared in court the previous day. It was the first time the six women and two men had appeared in public since they were taken into custody, although some diplomatic and family visits have been permitted.

Although both still and video filming of people is technically banned by the Taliban, the rules are usually relaxed for major news stories. Several of the reporters´ official Afghan interpreters were also detained, reportedly for failing to stop their foreign charges from taking pictures.

Last Saturday, the four Germans, two Australians and two Americans under investigation, were accompanied by several relatives and a diplomatic representative from their respective countries to the court where they heard the charges filed against them for the first time.

German George Taubmann, Shelter Now´s Afghanistan director and one of the eight prisoners, said: «We have not had a chance to defend ourselves. It is simply not true. We have not converted anybody. We are shocked about all the accusations.»

According to the United Nations, some 250 foreign aid workers are overseeing relief operations, which employ at least 20,000 Afghans across the country.

With jobs scarce, and local income averaging $4 per month, Afghans have coveted the chance to work for Western aid organizations. However, last month´s crackdown against foreigners has made Afghans nervous about even being seen in public with a foreigner, Kabul-based aid workers reported.

«Friendship with infidels is forbidden,» Chief Justice Saqib said during his sermon at Friday prayers in Kabul´s Pul-e-Khishti mosque. He sternly warned the Muslim faithful to stay away from non-Muslim «infidels,» declaring that they were evil and trying to destroy their faith.

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