Taliban OKs Visits to Aid Workers

By AMIR SHAH
The Associated Press
August 25, 2001

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban militia have agreed
to let relatives and diplomats visit eight foreign aid workers, including
two American women, jailed on charges of preaching Christianity in this
deeply devout Muslim nation.

The Taliban made the announcement Saturday, yielding to pleas from the
parents of the American detainees. Taliban officials also said three Western
diplomats, who had spent a week trying unsuccessfully to see the aid
workers, would now be allowed to visit, as would the International Red
Cross.

Red Cross spokesman Mario Musa said Red Cross officials in Kabul expected to
see the detainees on Sunday. Relatives and diplomats were to leave Pakistan
after getting Afghan visas, expected to be issued Sunday or Monday.

The American women, who are in their mid-20s, have been identified as Dana
Curry and Heather Mercer. Their hometowns have not been released.

For the last week, the two women's parents have been in nearby Pakistan,
begging for a chance to see their children. The Taliban finally relented,
saying they have completed the first and ``very important'' phase of their
investigation into the proselytizing charges, according to the Taliban-run
Bakhtar News Agency.

It quoted the Taliban's foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.

``The Red Cross spoke to me this morning and I told them: 'You can visit
them anytime,''' Muttawakil told The Associated Press earlier Saturday in a
telephone interview from southern Kandahar, the headquarters of the Islamic
militia.

The announcement was the latest development in a situation that has
jeopardized aid work in Afghanistan, a deeply impoverished nation wrecked by
years of warfare, natural disaster and economic ruin.

The Taliban, who control roughly 95 percent of the country, espouse a harsh
brand of Islam with a strict and literal adherence to the Muslim holy book,
the Quran. For an Afghan Muslim in Taliban-run Afghanistan, converting to
Christianity is punishable by death. For a foreigner, the punishment is jail
and expulsion.

The two Americans from German-based Shelter Now International were arrested
on Aug. 3 and the six others - four Germans and two Australians - were
detained Aug. 5 when the Taliban raided Shelter Now's offices and
confiscated Christian literature. The Taliban said the material was being
used to convert Muslims.

Sixteen Afghan staff workers for Shelter Now were also arrested. The
Taliban's ministry for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice called
the Afghan workers ``criminals'' because they did not inform the Islamic
militia that they were preaching Christianity.

Days later, the Taliban launched an investigation into all international
relief agencies in the nation, saying they suspected a wider conspiracy to
convert Muslims, spread Christianity and dilute Afghanistan's Islamic
fervor.

International organizations have denied accusations that they have engaged
in any religious preaching activities here. Several aid groups said more
arrests could cause an exodus of foreign aid workers.

The jailed workers have not been seen by Western diplomats, relatives or
other aid workers since their arrest.

Diplomats had worried that the Taliban were intentionally isolating the
workers to put psychological pressure on them. The Taliban earlier said they
refused visits because the detained aid workers might stop cooperating with
them if they saw the diplomats.

The United States does not have diplomatic relations with Afghanistan, but
the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, Pakistan, confirmed on Saturday that the
Taliban had told it the diplomats and relatives would be allowed to visit.

Musa said the Red Cross will bring medical supplies, should the aid workers
need them, and will relay messages to their families.

``But we will tell them to not give any messages that carry any political
and ideological references,'' he said.

Three diplomats from the United States, Australia and Germany recently spent
a week in Kabul trying unsuccessfully to see their detained nationals.
Meanwhile, relatives of the two jailed American women arrived in neighboring
Pakistan to try to get visas to Afghanistan.

They wrote a letter to the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar,
asking for their children's freedom and permission to travel to Afghanistan.
They apologized on behalf of their children for any actions that might have
offended the Islamic militia, said Sohail Shaheen, a spokesman at the
Taliban Embassy in Pakistan.

However, the letter did not mention anything about preaching Christianity.

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