Taliban Judge Warns of Non-Muslims

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - The Taliban's Supreme Court chief justice, who is hearing the case of eight foreign aid workers charged with preaching Christianity, warned Afghans on Friday to stay away from non-Muslims, who he said are out to destroy their faith.

``Stop your relationship with the kafir (unbeliever). The friendship with the kafir is forbidden,'' Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib told hundreds of worshippers at Kabul's largest mosque, Pul-e-Khishti, during the Muslim Sabbath.

Saqib warned Muslims that some international aid organizations used charity as a means to propagate Christianity. He specifically referred to Shelter Now International, the Christian aid group that employs the two Americans, four Germans and two Australians who have been jailed for allegedly proselytizing.

The aid workers were arrested along with 16 Afghan employees of Shelter Now International. The charge of preaching Christianity is a serious crime in this devout Muslim nation.

The trial of the international workers began last Tuesday in the Supreme Court. It was not known when the trial of the Afghan employees would be held.

Last week, the Taliban closed the local offices of two other international aid organizations, both self-declared Christian groups - International Assistance Mission and SERVE. The militia expelled their expatriate workers on charges they too were trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The aid groups have denied the allegations.

On Thursday, foreign ministry officials put on display Christian literature, Bibles and cassettes - all translated into local languages - that they said were taken from IAM offices. They also handed out the IAM constitution, which said one of the aims of the organization was ``to strengthen the Christian church in Afghanistan.''

During Friday's sermon in the ancient mosque, Saqib warned the faithful to look carefully at any reading material received from foreigners.

``If you find any book that is suspicious, quickly inform the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,'' said Saqib. He warned that thousands of Bibles were being circulated in this poor nation.

In a nation ravaged by more than two decades of war and the worst drought in living memory, Saqib said some international charities are using the offer of assistance to lure Muslims to Christianity.

``Some NGOs (nongovernment organizations) under the pretense of helping Afghans are using their charity for evil, to preach their Christianity,'' said Saqib.

However, he also told Muslims that the eight foreign aid workers had not been convicted and ``I promise you, their case will be dealt with fairly.''

Saqib then went on to list some of the evidence that he and the 14 other justices of the Supreme Court were reviewing. He did not say what punishment would be handed out if they were found guilty.

For an Afghan who converts to Christianity, the penalty is death. An earlier edict said a foreigner who proselytized would be jailed and expelled.

But on Thursday, Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said that punishment only applies when there are suspicions a foreigner has been proselytizing, but there is no evidence.

Under Islam, he said, there is no minimum or maximum penalty for a foreigner who is proven to have been preaching another religion. The final decision will rest with the Taliban's reclusive leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.

AP-NY-09-07-01 0850EDT

Copyright 2001 The Associated Press.