- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 8, 2001

The United States yesterday applied to send an official based in neighboring Pakistan to Afghanistan in a bid to free two Americans facing the death penalty for proselytizing, but has received no response to its request from the ruling Taliban.

Meanwhile in Kabul, the Afghan capital, officials said they had strong evidence that 24 foreign and local aid workers, arrested Sunday, were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity and would be punished under Islamic law.

In addition to the U.S. citizens, Dana Curry and Nicole Barnardhollon, four Germans, two Australians and 16 Afghans are among the detainees, who were working for the German-based relief group Shelter Germany, which claims organizational ties to the American humanitarian organization Shelter Now International (SNI).

A consular officer from the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, has applied for a visa for a possible visit to Afghanistan later this week in order to meet with the detained Americans, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

"We are pulling every lever and pushing every button that we can to try to get information, try to see to the welfare of these people," he said. "But I don't want to detract from the responsibility that the Taliban has for seeing them safe and sound, for letting us look after their welfare, and for letting them depart and return to their families."

Mr. Boucher said Washington had "stayed in touch" with the Taliban office in Islamabad, since the United States has no diplomatic presence in Afghanistan, but hadn't heard back. Pakistan is one of only three nations that recognize the Taliban government, which controls 90 percent of the country.

Confusion over SNI and Shelter Now yesterday clouded efforts to shed more light on the workers' mission in the impoverished country. SNI, a Christian humanitarian agency based in Oshkosh, Wis., said it has nothing to do with Shelter Germany the agency that sent the jailed workers to Kabul. But Shelter Germany's Web site describes itself as a "branch" of SNI.

"The German organization has sometimes used the name Shelter Now without SNI's permission, thus creating the confusion surrounding this incident," said SNI's executive director, Norm Leatherwood.

He said that, while SNI does work in Afghanistan, it was in no way connected to the 24 workers.

"The work of SNI is always done with the permission of the host country's government and in a manner which respects the laws and values of those countries," Mr. Leatherwood said. "SNI has a firm policy of providing assistance without regard to race, ethnicity, or religious background and with no expectation that beneficiaries will convert to Christianity."

Another SNI member said Shelter Germany had asked SNI not to release information about the Braunschweig, Germany-based organization.

In Kabul, a senior Taliban official told a news conference the detainees were in good health and their review would take only a few days.

Mohammed Salim Haqqani, deputy minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, showed reporters computer disks containing Christ's life story in the local Dari language as evidence collected from Shelter Germany's Kabul office.

He also showed an English and a Dari copy of the Bible, a book on Christianity, a timetable for a radio broadcast of the aid agency and what he called a written confession of a foreign female staffer of the group.

"Are these not valid and strong evidence?" Mr. Haqqani asked. "They gave children good food and money and then made them listen about Christianity."

He said there was no need for any foreign aid agency to visit the detainees or for any foreign lawyers and prosecutors to get involved. Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammed Omar would make the final decision on the workers' fate, he added.

The Taliban also said that 59 children who had been taught by the arrested workers had been sent to a correctional facility, where they would remain until all traces of Christianity were removed.

In Washington, Mr. Boucher said the United States was working with Germany and Australia to solve the problem.

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer rejected the Taliban's charges and asked for Pakistan's help in pressuring Kabul. Islamabad is believed to have some influence with the Taliban, although the movement ignored its appeal not to destroy ancient Buddha statues earlier this year.

Mr. Boucher said the outcome of the situation is in the hands of the Taliban.

"It's incumbent upon the Taliban to treat these people safely and fairly, and to let us see after their welfare," he said. "This is an important topic for all the foreign community and all the people who are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan."

• Arne Delfs contributed to this report.

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