Imprisoned Christians in Afghanistan Are Left Alone

One More Complication as Kabul Braces for Possible U.S. Attack

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, SEPT. 20, 2001 ( As world attention shifts to Afghanistan, prospects for the release of eight Christian aid workers, imprisoned by the Taliban regime, seemed more remote than ever.

Left behind in the rush of Westerners leaving Afghanistan, before a possible U.S. attack in retaliation for the Sept. 11 assault on New York and Washington, the eight foreign relief workers remain on trial for their lives, accused of trying to convert Afghan Muslims to Christianity.

“We will try to protect them if America attacks,” chief Taliban spokesman Abdul Hai Mutmaen was quoted as saying last Friday by the Compass agency.

Taliban officials had already ordered foreigners out of the country, stating that it could “no longer guarantee their safety” in the event of a U.S. strike.

In response, the United Nations ordered a complete pullout of remaining foreign relief workers by last Thursday. This left only 15 expatriates in Kabul working for the Red Cross. By Sunday, however, they too had bowed to Taliban orders, and withdrew their entire staff.

Those arrested — four Germans, two Australians and two Americans — are staffers of Shelter Now, a Christian relief group based in Germany.

In the context of last week´s U.N. pullout, the three diplomats representing the Christian relief workers were ordered by their governments to leave Kabul. Reluctantly, the parents of the American prisoners also agreed to return to Islamabad on U.N. planes.

“Tears flowed as the parents stood on the runway of Kabul´s war-battered airport,” reporter Barry Bearak of The New York Times wrote Sept. 13.

“You can imagine what it must be like for a mother to leave her daughter in a situation like this,” American Nancy Cassell told a press conference in Islamabad on Monday. Her daughter, Dayna Curry, 29, is one of the two American women facing trial before the Taliban Supreme Court.

On Monday, John Mercer, whose 24-year-old daughter Heather is the other American prisoner, said that he had begged Taliban officials at the Afghan Embassy in Islamabad to allow him to take his daughter´s place, but they gave him no answer.

Mercer and Cassell have reportedly written twice to the Taliban leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, asking him to show mercy to their daughters.

A Pakistani lawyer, described as an “Islamic scholar,” has been hired to defend the eight Christians.

The Talibans´ chief justice, Noor Mohammed Saqib, has declared the trial will continue and promised that the defense lawyer will have “regular access” to his clients. There has been no indication how long the trial may last.

Although the lawyer knows Pashto, the language used in the Taliban courts, he told American relatives of the prisoners that he would address the court in English, and rely upon a Pashto interpreter.

“We are not sure how much difference a lawyer will make, since Mullah Omar has the final say. But I believe that God can work through any instrument,” Cassell told Compass from Islamabad.

According to a New York Times report, the Taliban chief justice told the aid workers when they were brought to court Sept. 8: “We are going to produce evidence and proof that will convince the world and you people. You will be satisfied with the proof against you.”

When the charges against the eight were cited in court, prisoner George Taubmann said they were “simply not true” and that they were all “shocked” by the accusations.

Despite fears that the Taliban might use the eight Western Christians as pawns or even as “human shields” in the conflict over Osama bin Laden, Cassell said she continues to “cling to my hope and trust in our God to deliver them.”

The alleged “crime” of the relief aid workers could, under Islamic law, carry the death penalty, although the Taliban leader decreed earlier this year that any non-Muslim caught preaching Christianity would be imprisoned for up to 10 days and then be expelled from the country.

Far more serious is the plight of the 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now, arrested Aug. 5 with the eight foreigners, on suspicion of “aiding the spread of Christianity” in Afghanistan. “There is absolutely no word about how they are being treated,” a source in the region said.

Kabul officials have so far refused access to the Muslim defendants, stating that they will be tried separately.

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