American Christians Detained By Taliban Allowed Outside Visits

By T.C. Malhotra | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

New Delhi ( - Afghanistan's ruling Taliban is letting relatives visit two detained U.S. Christian relief workers, even as the Islamic militia was closely watching the activities of other groups involved in aid work, including United Nations agencies.

The Taliban arrested 24 workers -- two Americans, two Australians and four Germans -- in Kabul earlier this month on charges of spreading Christianity in the country. Officials said they would be tried under Islamic (shari'a) law.

Over the weekend, Taliban officials said the "most important" part of their investigation into the charges was complete.

The two American women, both single and in their mid-20s, have been identified as Dana Curry and Heather Mercer.

Curry's father and Mercer's mother reached Kabul late Monday, along with diplomats on a special U.N. flight from neighboring Pakistan. They were driven into the heavily fortified compound where the workers are being held.

Curry's visibly shaken mother spoke briefly to journalists upon her arrival at Kabul airport.

"I have not yet met her [Dana] since her arrest and all that I know about her is whatever has appeared in the press," said the woman, who refused to divulge her full name.

Mercer's father, John, said he was "very happy" at the prospect of seeing his daughter.

The Christian aid workers are being held in a school for delinquent children located in a sprawling campus compound in the capital.

It was not immediately clear how long the relatives and diplomats would be allowed to stay. As of Tuesday, they were understood be still be inside the compound.

The detainees are attached to a German-based aid agency, Shelter Now International. The organization has denied the charges of proselytizing, saying religious material found in the workers' possession were for their personal use, not intended as tools for converting Muslims to Christianity.

On Sunday, the International Red Cross received permission to visit the detained workers for the first time they were allowed access to any outsiders since their arrest three weeks ago.

"Relatives and diplomats have been given access as the first phase of investigations had been completed,' Afghanistan's official Bakhtar news agency reported earlier.

Regional analysts expressed concern that the detained workers may be forced to confess.

"The Taliban has not yet disclosed what the investigations have revealed and neither have they pronounced any judgment or served any sentence," said Meena Devi, general secretary of Dalit Sena, on Tuesday. The organization represents lower-caste Indians and is concerned with regional human rights issues.

"It may so happen that the foreign workers are kept in solitary confinement and forced to confess that they were involved converting people to Christianity," she said.

Meanwhile the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) has rejected any implication that it is involved in proselytizing, after the Taliban announced it was maintaining a close watch on it and other agencies.

Shelter Now is one of 150 WFP partner agencies in Afghanistan, and some WFP aid is channeled through the Christian relief agency.