AFGHAN aid workers of banished Christian group arrested

Sunday, September 9th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ As the trial of eight foreign aid workers accused of proselytizing entered its fifth day Sunday, the ruling Taliban was accused of jailing 35 Afghan employees of another Christian aid organization.

The Afghans were employed by International Assistance Mission (IAM), a self-declared Christian aid organization, that was shut down more than a week ago in this devoutly Muslim country.

They were arrested Thursday after obeying a Taliban directive to pick up their salaries at the planning ministry, which is responsible for foreign aid organizations, other aid workers said on condition of anonymity.

The Taliban have not commented on the arrests, even to confirm them, and it was not immediately clear if the IAM employees were picked up for questioning or if the Taliban plan to press charges.

The punishment for an Afghan Muslim who either converts to or preaches another religion is death. The punishment for a foreigner caught proselytizing is jail and expulsion.

One American aid worker said the Afghan staff probably took the risk of picking up their salaries because they were desperate for the money.

Afghans working for foreign aid organizations have been nervous since the arrest last month of the eight foreign aid workers of Shelter Now International, along with 16 Afghan employees of the same organization.

The foreign aid workers _ two Americans, four Germans and two Australians _ did not appear in court Sunday. Supreme Court judges spent day five of the trial behind doors, sifting through evidence.

Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib said it was ``premature'' to discuss punishment for eight foreign aid workers who pleaded innocent Saturday during their first court appearance.

They said they were unaware of the charges against them and had been kept in virtual isolation since their arrests in early August.

The 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now, a German-based Christian organization, have not been seen in public since their arrest and will be tried separately.

``All I want is my father back,'' said 14-year-old Ajmal, whose father, Arsalan, was arrested.

Ajmal, who like most Afghans uses only one name, makes 70 cents a week working as a mechanic. He is the oldest of six children and now the sole wage earner.

``How can I feed my family? My father is innocent,'' he said. ``He only worked for them for 10 days when he was arrested.''

Soon after the Shelter Now arrests, the Taliban closed the local offices IAM and SERVE, both self-declared Christian groups, expelling their expatriate workers on charges they too were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The aid groups have denied the allegations.

Last week the foreign ministry displayed Christian material allegedly confiscated from IAM offices in Kabul. One of the documents allegedly said the aim of IAM was to ``strengthen the Christian church in Afghanistan.''

Increasingly Afghans in Kabul are afraid to be seen with foreigners for fear of being branded a convert.

On Friday in the city's largest mosque, Saqib, who also is an Islamic cleric, warned the faithful to stay away from foreigners, saying friendship with them was against Islam.

He accused some aid organizations of using charity to lure Afghans to Christianity.