Taliban Shuts Down More Christian Relief Agencies

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:10 PM EDT

London (CNSNews.com) - The Islamist authorities ruling most of Afghanistan reportedly shut down the offices of two Christian relief agencies Friday, two days after announcing that eight foreign staff from another agency would stand trial for spreading Christianity.

Reports from Kabul say the offices of the International Assistance Mission (IAM) and Serve were shut down on the orders of the Taliban.

Foreign workers with the two organizations were ordered to leave the country. IAM, which has been working in Afghanistan for decades, runs eye hospitals and clinics and is staffed by mostly American expatriate volunteers.

A representative at its offices in Peshawar, Pakistan - where many relief agencies operating in Afghanistan are located - declined to comment when reached by phone Friday.

But she said Timothy Mindling, the acting IAM executive director, was expected to arrive in Peshawar from Kabul at the weekend, and would then likely comment on the developments.

Reports from Kabul said Mindling, an American, had been questioned by Taliban officials overnight before being ordered to leave the country by Saturday morning.

Information on both IAM and Serve was hard to come by late Friday. But archived news reports from the South Asia region describe IAM's Nur Eye Hospital as the main supplier of eye care in the country.

One report said the agency had been operating in Afghanistan for more than 30 years, having weathered communist rule as well as the arrival and takeover of the fundamentalist Taliban.

Serve apparently provides solar-operated equipment and also runs health projects. No-one at its Peshawar offices was available to answer queries Friday.

With the atmosphere in Kabul becoming more tense than usual, another non-governmental organization, Partners in Aviation and Communications Technology, has also closed its agency.

PACTEC has until recently conducted light airplane flights between Peshawar and Kabul for humanitarian aid workers.

A representative of the U.S.-based organization said Friday all but one of its staff had been withdrawn from the country, and the last worker would leave shortly.

"Tensions in Kabul for the past several weeks have been dicey. As a precautionary measure we did move our people out just to ensure there would be no harm. So far everything has been very orderly, and there's been no panic," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named.

PACTEC has been operating in Afghanistan under IAM's protocol with the Taliban while its own process of obtaining documentation was underway. "To provide services in Kabul for NGOs we had to be under someone's umbrella," the spokesman said, but stressed that PACTEC and IAM were separate organizations.

Early this month the Taliban arrested two American women and six other foreigners, along with 16 Afghans, accusing them of seeking to convert Muslims to Christianity. All were attached to Shelter Now International, a German relief agency, which denied that Christian materials confiscated by the authorities had been intended for missionary purposes.

After a period of uncertainty, diplomats from the U.S., Australia and Germany were eventually allowed access to the detainees, as were some relatives. The Americans were named as Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, both single and in their 20s.

Taliban officials said in recent days they were investigating other groups also suspected of using relief aid to lure poor Afghans into Christianity.

Under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law, charges of seeking to convert from Islam could carry the death penalty, although in the case of foreigners prison terms and expulsion may be handed down.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow