New Delhi (CNSNews.com) - The arrest in Afghanistan of 24 Christian aid workers, two of them Americans, has caused widespread concern in the international community, with fears that charges of proselytizing in the Islamic country could result in the death sentence.
The detained group, which also includes four Germans and two Australians - the rest are Afghan nationals - are attached to a Germany-based relief agency, Shelter Now International (SNI).
They have been accused of seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity - an offence which attracts severe punishment under the strict Islamic law enforced by the militia ruling most of Afghanistan, the Taliban.
The U.S., Australia and Germany have expressed grave concern. The U.S. State Department said Monday it has contacted the Taliban's envoy in Islamabad, Pakistan, and was awaiting a reply.
A spokesman said the department had no knowledge of the veracity or otherwise of the charges made by the Taliban against the workers.
Germany has demanded the immediate release of the four German nationals, while a statement from the Australian government said it was trying to establish contact with the two Australians.
Regional analysts speculated that the arrests may be an attempt to prevent local people from having access to views deemed dangerous by the Taliban.
"This is an attempt to prevent the spread of awareness among local Afghanis," said New Delhi-based analyst Rahul Banerjee.
"The international aid agencies may have succeeded in inculcating a sense of human rights among the people in the country and this may have concerned the ruling militia who fear that spread of awareness among the people could create strong opposition to their orthodox laws, most of which violate basic human rights in some way or the other," Banerjee said.
The Taliban's deputy minister for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, Mohammad Salim Haqqani, said the investigation into the charges was continuing. A decision would be taken on the basis of Islamic (shari'a) law, he said.
There has been some confusion about the relief agency. SNI is an American group based in Oshkosh, Wis. which also works in Afghanistan, but whose name is also used by the German group involved in the current episode.
The U.S. group clarified the situation in a statement Tuesday, saying it had offered to help the German organization during this crisis.
Two women, one of them an American, were among the first to have been arrested by the Taliban religious police on Sunday.
According to Haqqani, Christian material including a Bible was found in their possession while they were visiting the home of an Afghan family.
"They have no message for their families or their government and are [being] looked after well and have no problem," he said.
The rest of the group was arrested later.
Sixty-four Afghan locals have also been arrested and have been sent to a "religious correctional" school in Kabul, Haqqani said.
The Taliban has attracted international criticism for its strict laws and rights abuses. Several months ago, it destroyed gigantic ancient Buddha statues, calling them idolatrous.
It also drew fire for insisting that members of the country's small Hindu minority wear items of clothing identifying them as non-Muslims.
Last year, the Taliban ordered the closure of U.N.-sponsored bakeries operated by poor widows in the capital, on the grounds that it was un-Islamic for women to work.