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Wednesday, 8 August, 2001, 06:08 GMT 07:08 UK
Taleban 'have proof' against aid workers
A bible is among items displayed by the Taleban
Afghanistan's ruling Taleban say they have recovered thousands of Christian video and audio tapes, and bibles translated into local languages, from 24 aid workers being held on charges of promoting Christianity.

We are a normal aid organisation, not a Christian organisation. It is not our goal to proselytise

SNI spokesman, Joachim Jaeger
But a new decree that includes a ban on trying to convert Afghans also reportedly includes the provision that foreigners will not face the death penalty for missionary activity.

Initial reports said that eight foreign aid workers - four Germans, two Australians, two Americans - - could be executed if found guilty of trying to convert Muslims.

Sixteen Afghan aid workers arrested at the same time still may face execution.

The BBC's Kate Clark says no-one has yet seen the new evidence, which follows a display of seized items on Tuesday, but it is likely to be used to enforce the Taleban's case against the group.

Their charity, the German-based Shelter Now International (SNI) has said the material was only for personal use.

SNI spokesman, Joachim Jaeger, said: "We are a normal aid organisation, not a Christian organisation. It is not our goal to proselytise."

US, German and Australian diplomats are hoping to fly to Kabul to argue for their release on Thursday.

And they will be acutely aware of the severity of their people's situation.

Why would SNI need to print bibles and have all of these video and audio tapes in local languages?

Mohammad Salim Haqqani, Deputy Minister for the Prevention of Vice
Our correspondent says the aid workers are being held by the Taleban's religious police - the most feared organisation within the Taleban.

Even other Taleban ministers do not have any influence over them.

Stuart Worsley, who has worked in Afghanistan for the last seven years for the agency Care International, told the BBC: "It is an extremely difficult task.

"The Taleban do not respond well to international pressure where they feel that pressure is challenging their national sovereignty and their independence to act within the country."

Christian 'front'

Shelter Now describes itself as a non-governmental organisation involved in food distribution, water supplies and helping street children.

The Taleban, however, say the group's activities are a front for propagating Christianity.

Aid workers are fighting a desperate level of need
Mohammad Salim Haqqani, Deputy Minister for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue, told Reuters: "The probing is becoming interesting and all these new findings are indicative of the fact once again that they were deviating Afghans.

"Why would SNI need to print bibles and have all of these video and audio tapes in local languages?

"(The foreign staff) can't say they were kept for their own use as they only speak English and other foreign languages."

But one of the group's Afghan workers, Faraz Khan, told our correspondent no foreign staff had encouraged him to convert in the 20 years he has been with the organisation.

Tough line

The Taleban militia, which controls 95% of the country, follows a purist form of Islam and takes a hard line towards minority religions in Afghanistan.

In January, the Taleban's supreme leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, decreed that anyone convicted of trying to persuade an Afghan Muslim to convert would face the death penalty.

Taleban crime and punishment
Murder: Execution
Thieves: Limbs amputated
Adulterers: Stoned or lashed to death

But a report by the private Afghan Islamic Press - which has close ties with the Taleban - quoted an unspecified information ministry statement saying foreigners found guilty of such crimes could be jailed for three days to a month or expelled from the country.

'Foreign masters'

In a sign of the Taleban's continuing hard line on "foreign influence", four men convicted of setting off bombs in the Afghanistan capital, Kabul, were publicly hanged from steel cranes next to the city's presidential palace on Wednesday.

The Taleban Bakhtar news agency called the bombers "the puppets of foreign masters".

Our correspondent says there are fears that the arrests of the aid workers could lead to all international aid agencies, except specifically Muslim ones, being branded as covert missionaries.

Working in Afghanistan is already very difficult.

Earlier this year the United Nations complained about arrests of local staff by the Taleban's religious police, raids on hospitals, and threats made against expatriate workers by foreign Islamic militants who were allied to the Taleban.

But aid workers stay because of the desperate level of need in the country.

The impact of civil war has been exacerbated by the worst drought in living memory, and huge population flows.

The BBC's Kate Clark
"Dipolmats in Pakistan are still trying to get visas"
Kate Hunt, CARE charity
"We are going to continue proceeding in the same manner that we have all along"
Antony Morton-King, Christian Aid
"We have a policy, very much, of openness"
See also:

09 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban ease foreigner restrictions
06 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban crackdown on Christian relief
08 Aug 01 | South Asia
Taleban hang four in public
29 May 01 | South Asia
Afghan UN bread talks fail
16 Aug 00 | South Asia
Taleban shuts women's bakeries
28 Jun 00 | South Asia
Annan: Kabul's grim future
11 Jan 00 | South Asia
Afghanistan: Women under Taleban rule
10 Mar 01 | South Asia
Icon smashing - the precedents
03 Aug 98 | South Asia
Analysis: Who are the Taleban?
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