RELATIVES, Western diplomats visit detained foreign aid workers

Monday, August 27th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) _ Parents of two Americans charged with preaching Christianity visited their children Monday, three weeks after the young women and six other foreign aid workers were jailed in the capital of this deeply devout Muslim nation.

The mother of one American woman and the father of another, along with three Western diplomats, were hustled into black Mercedes vehicles and driven quickly through the rocket-ruined streets of Kabul to the high-walled compound where the eight workers _ two Americans, four Germans and two Australians _ have been held since their arrest. Journalists accompanied the entourage on its trip to the compound.

Two boxes addressed to American Heather Mercer and a blue suitcase were loaded into the trunk of one of the vehicles.

The eight workers were arrested along with 16 Afghan staff of the Shelter Now International organization. It's not known where the Afghan staff are being held and so far the Taliban have refused to permit anyone to see them.

Foreigners convicted of proselytizing are expelled; Afghans face the death penalty.

Wrapped in a giant black shawl, the mother of the other jailed American, Dana Curry, fought back tears as she spoke briefly upon her arrival Monday to Kabul. The group was brought aboard a chartered U.N. flight.

``All I know about her condition is what I have seen in the press,'' said the mother, who refused to give her first name. She appeared frail and was twice escorted away by Mercer's father, John.

It wasn't known how long the relatives and diplomats would be allowed to remain with the detained aid workers, who are being held in the heart of the city at a reform school for delinquent children _ many of them street children arrested for either begging or scavenging.

On Sunday, the group received their first foreign visitors _ officials from the Red Cross. However, because of Red Cross confidentiality rules, the officials were unable to say anything about the detainees' condition.

Curry's mother said her daughter suffers from asthma.

Abdul Ghafoor Afghani, chief of the protocol department under the ruling hard-line Taliban militia, said Dana Curry was ill over the weekend. She was taken home briefly to collect some unspecified medicine and was also taken to a hospital in Kabul where X-rays were taken.

Curry and Mercer are in their 20s. Their hometowns have not been released. The other six jailed foreigners have been identified as Germans George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf; and Australians Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas.

The Taliban say the Afghan teachers working for Shelter Now International and currently in Taliban custody are believed to have converted to Christianity, said Afghani.

``In one of the foreigner's confessions she said 'we had hired Afghan teachers' and if they are teaching the Christian message then that means they have converted already,'' said Afghani.

However, he said Islam allows Muslims who have converted to Christianity three to 30 days to recant their conversion and embrace Islam again.

Meanwhile, Afghani said the number of Bibles connected to Shelter Now and translated into Persian and Pashtu, the country's two main languages, was ``enormous.'' However, he said the Taliban have allowed the aid workers to keep their own holy books _ in English.

``We know that this is their religion and we respect that,'' said Afghani.