UN, Embassies Concerned as Foreigners Face Sharia Law in Afghanistan
The United Nations expressed concern Monday as Afghanistan's Taliban militia said eight foreigners arrested on suspicion of preaching Christianity would be punished according to Sharia law.
The fundamentalist regime's deputy religious police minister, Mohammad Salim Haqani, told AFP the foreigners had confessed to their crimes but the extent of their proselytizing, which would determine the punishment, was still unclear.
The foreigners -- two men and six women -- were among 24 people arrested Sunday. They were understood to include two Americans, two Australians and four Germans.
Only last year the militia decreed that anyone found to have successfully encouraged an Afghan to convert to another religion, or any Afghan who renounced Islam, would be executed.
"In line with the decrees of (Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar) and Islamic Sharia law we will declare the penalties against these people," Haqani said. He did not provide the names or nationalities of those arrested.
He said the foreigners, staff of US-based relief agency Shelter Now International (SNI), were found with Christian literature including a Bible and a Christian film which had been played on a computer to an Afghan family.
"We have been following this group for a long time and finally on Friday afternoon we were able to capture the two women red-handed as they showed the film to an Afghan family," Haqani said, referring to the American women.
He said the foreigners had been forbidden any contact with the outside world as the militia investigated SNI's activities here in the capital and in the provinces.
The two men were being held at a religious police detention centre while the women were detained at a home for juveniles, officials said.
SNI's offices had been sealed as well as a school where the group was teaching some 65 children. The children were undergoing Islamic education Monday at the juvenile centre where the female detainees were being held.
"Obviously this is a major concern for us that humanitarian workers are being arrested," UN country coordinator's office spokeswoman Letizia Rossano said.
"There is a pattern that has clearly been coming out in the past few months of increasing difficulties for foreign aid workers."
The UN has complained at the highest level about increasing incidents of harassment, intimidation and arrest of aid workers at a time when the international community is struggling to avert a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan due to the ongoing civil war and the worst drought in memory.
The Taliban professes to respect religious freedom but earlier this year caused an international outcry by blowing up two ancient and colossal statues of Buddha in line with a local decree against "idolatry".
It was also condemned for proposing that members of the Afghan Hindu minority wear yellow badges to distinguish them from Muslims, drawing comparisons with the Nazis' yellow star for Jews.
"We're looking into it but we do not have any information we can give you at this stage," a US embassy spokeswoman said.
A German embassy spokesman said: "We are still deliberating about this case and we have to report to Berlin. We have scheduled a meeting with the Taliban ambassador (to Pakistan) in the afternoon".
"There is a new trend (by the Taliban) to take a tougher stance against foreigners."
SNI's operations in Afghanistan, including soup kitchens, bakeries and the manufacture of roofing beams and mud houses, receive support from Germany, Britain, Holland and the UN.
Staff and donor representatives said it was not an evangelical organisation, but its web page talks of being "instruments of God's love for all people and especially the poor.” -- KABUL (AFP)
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)