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Foreign Relief Group's Office Closed

By Amir Shah, Associated Press,
Monday 6 August 2001 8:38 AM ET

KABUL, Afghanistan (news - web sites) (AP) - Afghanistan's Taliban rulers closed the office of a foreign relief organization and arrested 24 of its workers, including two Americans, accusing them of propagating Christianity, a Taliban-run news agency reported Sunday.

The organization that was shut down is run by a German-based Christian relief agency called Vision for Asia. The relief effort previously had been run by a U.S.-based group called Shelter Now International, but the Germans took over several years ago, after the Americans were threatened for allegedly proselytizing in Afghan refugee camps. The name of the relief group was never changed in Afghanistan, where it is still known as Shelter Now.

Norman Leatherwood, executive director of Shelter Now International, based in Oshkosh, Wis., said the two groups have maintained contact about the Afghanistan relief program. He said two American women, a German man and an Australian man were among eight foreigners detained.

We're still very concerned about those who have been detained and are following the situation, Leatherwood said.

The office was sealed on Sunday following a raid by enforcement officers of the Taliban's ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, witnesses said. The officers reportedly seized a Bible, two computers, Christian literature translated into the local Dari language, as well as cassettes and musical instruments.

The Taliban, a religious militia that espouses a harsh brand of fundamentalist Islam, has accused Shelter Now of spreading Christianity and trying to convert Muslims, according to Bakhtar News Agency.

In Taliban-ruled Afghanistan it is a crime punishable by death to propagate any religion other than Islam or convert a Muslim to another religion. Foreigners are sometimes expelled from the country.

Shelter Now faced similar accusations from Afghans while working in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan, but the organization always denied handing out Bibles. The group started as a response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, providing housing for some of the millions of refugees who flooded into Pakistan and Iran.

Besides the Shelter Now workers, the Taliban also arrested 64 Afghans who they said had received instructions in Christianity from Shelter Now and sent them to religious schools, Bakhtar reported.

The men confessed to their crimes and anti-Islamic activities, according to Maulvi Mohammed Salim Haqqani, the head of the Taliban's so-called religious police. The men have been sent to a correction house, he said, although it wasn't clear what that would entail.

They have asked for forgiveness from the Taliban, Bakhtar quoted Haqqani as saying.

The Taliban, who rule 95 percent of Afghanistan, have previously accused some international aid organizations, including Shelter Now, of trying to spread Christianity among Afghans.

The United Nations (news - web sites) has accused the Taliban of harassing foreign and local aid workers. The Taliban deny the charge, but say foreigners living in Afghanistan have to abide by their rules.

The first Shelter Now employees arrested were two women who were picked up by the Taliban's so-called religious police on Friday.

The women were arrested after they visited the home of an Afghan. The Taliban have prohibited foreigners from visiting the homes of Afghans.

The Taliban forbid most forms of light entertainment and requires the faithful to strictly adhere to the Islamic holy book, the Koran. Women are required to wear the all-encompassing burqa. They are not allowed to mingle with men, work or attend school beyond the age of 8.