- The Washington Times - Monday, August 27, 2001

Two American women in their mid-twenties, four German and two Australian aid workers have been trying to help the impoverished of Afghanistan, providing food to its street children and women, who are forbidden from working. Now they are hostages of the Taliban, accused of proselytizing. According to a new law passed by the leader of the Taliban movement, this "offense" can be punishable by death. The aid workers from Shelter Now Germany had been barred from having any connection with the outside world, despite desperate attempts by their families, friends, coworkers and governments to reach them. Over the weekend, members of the International Committee of the Red Cross finally got access to the eight and have reported that at least they appear to be in good health. In Kabul, the ruling Taliban's interpretation of Islamic law has changed with its every passing whim. This incident is no different.

The week of their Aug. 3 arrest, the minister of the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vices reinstated the penalty for missionary work. The Taliban's representative to the United Nations indicated Thursday, however, that none of the foreign workers or the 16 Afghans arrested on the same charges would be sentenced to death. The two American women were arrested first, while visiting the home of an Afghan family, where conversation had turned to religion. Udo Stollte, the German-based director of Shelter Now Germany, was visiting the workers in Kabul when the two Americans were arrested. A few hours after he left the country, his German colleagues were also taken. The Afghan children were not taught Christianity, Mr. Stollte said in an interview. At the children's compound of Shelter Now, his workers served the children a midday meal and did crafts and sports with them for several hours. This outreach to the 70,000 "street children," whose parents were either dead or house-bound, were meant to keep the children from stealing and begging on the streets. His workers did violate anything on the long list of don'ts provided by the Taliban, he said.

"We have been there for almost 20 years in this culture. The fact that we've been working there so long - almost longer than any other organization - proves that our people are very culture-conscious," he said in an interview from Germany. What has changed in the last few years is the interpretation of Islamic law, "Shariah." Women are now not allowed to leave their homes unless for a government-sanctioned purpose, such as a medical emergency. They are not allowed an education. Any woman found in the presence of a man not her relative could be flogged or killed. Still, until now, Shelter Now's experience in the region over the past 20 years had been positive.

Mr. Stollte's colleagues will likely not be finishing their projects. For the eight foreigners, there is hope that they will be able to return to their countries. They would be leaving behind many physically and spiritually oppressed.


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