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UN Concerned Over Detention of Afghanistan Aid Workers - 2001-08-06

The United Nations is expressing concern over the arrest of two dozen foreign and local relief workers for allegedly preaching Christianity in Afghanistan.

The ruling Taleban Islamic movement says the aid workers from Shelter Now International in the Afghan capital have been detained for allegedly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The crime is punishable by death in most of Afghanistan under Taleban control.

Two American women, one Australian man, and a German are said to be among the eight foreigners arrested.

Taleban religious ministry official Mohammad Salim Haqqani says the arrested foreigners are being treated well. He told reporters in Kabul an investigation is being conducted and their fate would be decided under Islamic law.

U.N. spokesperson in neighboring Pakistan Letizia Rossano says the world body knows little about the situation.

"We are waiting to hear exactly what happened," she said. "At the moment we understand some [non-governmental organization] workers have been arrested and this is of concern."

In recent months, aid groups led by the United Nations have complained about increasing incidents of harassment, intimidation, and arrest of their workers in Afghanistan. Ms. Rossano says it is not clear whether the latest Taleban action is linked to those difficulties.

"It has to be seen what happened," she said. "There were instances in the past where we did experience difficulties. We do not understand yet whether this could be linked to those difficulties yet."

Taleban official Haqqani says investigations have also begun into other offices of the Shelter Now International group to determine if they are also involved in similar activities.

So far the Taleban has refused to allow anyone to visit those being held. Mr. Haqqani is quoted as saying that two female staff members, an American and an Australian, have confessed they were involved in teaching Christianity to Afghans. He says that in a written statement the two have expressed regrets and tendered an apology.

The Taleban accused the women of propagating Christianity by showing a video on a computer to an Afghan family. It says Taleba religious police raided a house in Kabul and recovered the video, Christian literature, and an English language Bible.

Afghanistan's ruling Taleban is known for practicing a strict version of Islamic law, which prescribes the death penalty for Muslims converting to any other religion or those involved in such conversions.

In 1990 the U.S.-based Shelter Now International faced similar accusations from Afghans while working in refugee camps in neighboring Pakistan, but it denied handing out Bibles. The group is supported by various Western countries and is engaged in humanitarian work in Afghanistan.