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An unholy war of nerves

"An unholy war of nerves" Continued...

Issue: "Trial and terror," Sept. 1, 2001

The Taliban then proceeded to loot some $45,000 worth of factory equipment, according to the laborers, including a Toyota pick-up truck, two generators, several cement mixers, and expensive manufacturing tools. The Taliban also searched another factory run by the organization; there, the police forces ate food prepared for daily workers, many of whom are too poor to buy food on their own.

Shelter Now's Afghanistan director, Esteban Witzemann, told reporters the allegations of proselytizing Afghan Muslims were false: "There might be some [material] for private use ... but what they are accused of, that they are distributing hundreds of Bibles and Christian literature and they are trying to persuade people to leave Islam and become Christians, all this is nonsense and not true."

Shelter Now, with headquarters in Braunschweig, Germany, runs relief programs in both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The group was part of Wisconsin-based Shelter Now International until 1990 and receives donations from churches in both Europe and the United States, according to spokesman Johan Jaeger.

In early press accounts, U.S. officials released the wrong names for one of the American hostages, and the German agency quickly withdrew them. "The relatives have asked that we not release their names," Mr. Jaeger told WORLD. What is known about the two women is that they are single and in their 20s, known for their generosity because they regularly gave food and money to street beggars from their apartment in Kabul. Press reports from Pakistan said the women are Dana Curry and Heather Mercer.

Mr. Jaeger readily noted that many Shelter Now employees are Christians but also pointed to press materials dated Aug. 8, which state that the group's "purpose is to work solely and exclusively for the common good of all people. To proselytize is not included in our statutes."

Director Udo Stolte told a press conference, shortly after his own return from Kabul, "It is totally natural and part of the culture in Afghanistan to discuss the subject of faith, whether it's the Muslim or the Christian faith." He admitted that "when our co-workers are asked why they do this work, it often leads to discussions on social and relief work as an integral part of Christian life." He insisted that any material the workers might have would have been for their personal use.

The risks of working under strict Islamic law are well known to most aid agencies and Christian advocates. "The ground rules are different depending on the country," explained Jim Jacobson, director of Christian Freedom International, "but whether it is working under radical Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, most organizations have in-house training and go through several scenarios on anticipating and preventing something like this." Having smuggled Bibles into China and other restricted countries, Mr. Jacobson said he doubted "aid workers would actually be found using material clearly intended for the local population. It doesn't square."

Until the charges are settled, aid workers in Kabul, particularly Afghanis associated with foreign groups, are nervous. "We are trying to maintain business as usual, but it is a cloud hanging over Kabul," said Tim Mindling, an American and acting head of International Assistance Mission, which operates eye hospitals throughout Afghanistan.

"We have had a policy to be respectful of local laws, and at least at this point I would not say we are doing anything different," said Brandy Westerman of Portland-based Mercy Corps International. Several aid organizations did say they would be ready to evacuate workers if Taliban threats increased.

Taliban is a term that literally means "pupils." It became the name of the ruling militia during the war that followed the Soviet Union's invasion in 1979. While most of its leaders are veterans of Afghanistan's 20-year war, they are also products of radical Islamic schools in Iran and Pakistan. With help from radical elements in those countries (and aid from the United States), Taliban leader Mulawi Mohammed Omar battled Soviet forces in the 1980s and forced their final ouster after the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991. He also overcame competing warlords to gain control of nearly all of the country.

Although it has maintained a ragtag commando image, the Taliban now controls all government offices in Kabul. Only three countries-Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates-maintain diplomatic ties. Most Islamic leaders in other countries disagree with the Taliban's extremism. The United States and most Western nations blackballed the Taliban for sheltering terrorist organizations, most notably Osama bin Laden and his training camps.

The fanatical Islamic regime also prohibits women from working outside the home or walking outdoors freely. Leena Rauhala, a Christian Union member of the Finnish Parliament, was part of a Finnish delegation allowed to visit Afghanistan last year. Citing poverty and a "dysfunctional infrastructure," she said, "It is absolutely clear that the people have no rights. The women do not have the right to work or to receive an education. In some places, women try to work but it is clear that they are afraid of the religious police, as everything in the country is linked to Islam."

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