Two Christian Aid Groups Suspended in Afghanistan Over Proselytizing Claims

By Rohan Sullivan | June 1, 2010 | 2:55 AM EDT

Afghan presidential candidate and current President Hamid Karzai gives his supporters a signal for silence during his election campaign rally in Herat, west of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, Aug. 14, 2009. (AP Photo/Fradioon Pooya)

Kabul (AP) –  Afghan authorities suspended two Christian foreign aid groups Monday on suspicion of proselytizing in the strictly Islamic nation and said a follow-up investigation would include whether other groups were trying to convert Muslims.

U.S.-based Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid will not be allowed to operate while the allegations, aired Sunday on Afghan television, are investigated, said Mohammad Hashim Mayar, the deputy director of the Afghan government office that oversees nongovernment organizations (NGOs).

An investigation commission including officers from the National Security and Interior Ministries had been appointed, he said.

Both organizations denied the allegation, and Mayar said officials did not have any evidence of proselytizing beyond the television report.

"They are investigating whether the groups were proselytizing or not," Mayar said. "They will report back and also assess what is the impact of closing these NGOs. The investigation will include whether other groups or individuals are involved."

Norwegian Church Aid Secretary-General Atle Sommerfeldt said in a statement that his organization has a firm policy of not attempting "to convert people to another religion" in all countries where it operates.

Maurice Bloem, deputy director of programs for Church World Service, said in a statement his organization does not proselytize, in accordance with the code of conduct for NGOs.

Bloem said Church World Service has worked inside Afghanistan since 1979, always in partnership with local Afghan organizations, and has been serving half a million people of different faiths there. He said its mission is to assist the Afghan people.

Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, as it is in many Muslim countries. It is a hot-button issue for many Afghans sensitive to the influence of the scores of foreign aid groups operating in the country to help it recover from decades of war.

The television report, which interviewed local police saying they had heard rumors of the charities' proselytizing, triggered a demonstration by several hundred students at Kabul University on Monday.

The group shouted death threats toward foreigners who seek to convert Muslims and demanded the government expel anyone who tried, said Mohammad Najib, a professor at the school who witnessed the protest.

The group blocked the road outside the university's main gate for more than an hour before the demonstrators moved off peacefully, Najib said. Police stood by but did not intervene.

Church World Service is a cooperative ministry of more than 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations in the United States and works in more than 80 countries. It is headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana.

Norwegian Church Aid, which is tied to Norway's Lutheran state church and receives financial support from the Norwegian government, operates in about 125 countries, providing long-term development and emergency response aid, according to its website. It said it has been working in Afghanistan since 1979.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ragnhild Imerslund said the ministry had scheduled a meeting Monday between Norway's ambassador to Afghanistan and Afghanistan's minister of economic affairs to determine the nature of the allegations.

(Associated Press Writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul and Ian MacDougall in Oslo, Norway, contributed to this report.)
The U.S.- and Norway-based groups, which say they have been helping the Afghan people since 1979, deny accusations of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.