KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan's Taliban rulers said Monday that a group of aid workers — including two Americans — will remain jailed until the hard-line Muslim militia completes its investigation of charges they were spreading Christianity.
Promoting any religion other than Islam is a crime punishable by death in the 95 percent of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban. The militia says it already has statements from Afghans the group allegedly was trying to convert.
So far, the Taliban have refused to allow anyone to visit the 24 aid workers.
"They are all in good condition," said Salim Haqqani, of the Taliban's ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice. "We have given them three good meals and they are living in a nice room."
A Taliban official said that among those held were two Americans — Dana Curry and Nicole Barnardhollon — four Germans — George Taubmann, Margrit Stebnar, Kati Jelinek and Silke Duerrkopf — and two Australians — Peter Bunch and Diana Thomas. The remaining detainees were Afghans.
The organization, Shelter Now International, is run in Afghanistan by a German-based Christian relief agency called Vision for Asia.
The aid agency previously had been run by a U.S.-based group of the same name, but the Germans took it over several years ago, after the Americans were threatened for allegedly proselytizing in Afghan refugee camps.
Norman Leatherwood, executive director of the U.S. group, Shelter Now International, based in Oshkosh, Wis., said the two groups have maintained contact about the Afghanistan relief program, but are not affiliated.
"We're still very concerned about those who have been detained and are following the situation," Leatherwood said.
The Kabul office was sealed on Sunday following a raid by enforcement officers of the Taliban's ministry for promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, witnesses said.
The officers reportedly seized a Bible, two computers, Christian literature translated into the local Dari language, cassettes and musical instruments.
"An investigation is being conducted and it will be decided according to Shariat (Islamic law)," said Salim Haqqani, a ministry spokesman.
Under the Taliban's strict brand of Islamic law, the promotion of any religion other than Islam or the conversion from Islam to any religion is punishable by death.
In 1990, the U.S.-based Shelter Now International organization faced similar charges for its actions in Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. Orthodox Islamists rioted and threatened to kill the group's executive director at the time. That's when the U.S.-based group stopped working with Afghan refugees, Leatherwood said.
Leatherwood added that while his group is Christian, it does not proselytize in countries where it provides assistance.
Besides the Shelter Now workers, the Taliban also arrested 64 Afghans whom they said had received instructions in Christianity from Shelter Now workers. The men have been sent to Islamic religious schools, said Bakhtar News Agency.
The men confessed to their "crimes and anti-Islamic activities," according to Haqqani. The men have been sent to a "correction house," he said, although it wasn't clear what that would entail.
"They have asked for forgiveness from the Taliban," Bakhtar News Agency quoted Haqqani as saying.