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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