We Are All Good Muslims

Like most Afghan refugees who live in the dusty camps of northwestern Pakistan, Noor Mohammed is a devout Muslim. So, he says, is his elder brother Zardarlu, who has worked for five years as a driver for a German relief group called Shelter Now International.

"He prays five times a day," Mohammed said. "He helped the freedom fighters defend Islam against Russian troops in our country. Sometimes he tries to call his foreign co-workers to become a Muslim too." His brow furrowed with anxiety. "Why has this terrible thing happened to him?"

Zardarlu Mohammed is one of 24 employees of Shelter Now -- 16 Afghans, four Germans, two Australians and two Americans -- who were arrested early this month in Kabul, the Afghan capital, by the ruling Taliban movement's Islamic religious police on suspicion of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The Taliban, a radical Islamic movement that controls 95 percent of the country, considers converting to or propagating any other faith to be a serious crime. Foreigners found guilty of proselytizing may be simply expelled, but Afghans may be sentenced to death.

International attention has so far focused on the plight of the detained Westerners. But in interviews this week in several refugee camps, a dozen local employees of Shelter Now, including one Pakistani Christian and numerous Afghan Muslims, said they were both alarmed and baffled by the accusations leveled against the Afghan detainees.

"I have been working for Shelter Now since 1995, and nobody has ever invited me to become a Christian or even shown me a Bible," said Zabiullah, 24, a former medical student from Kabul who lost one leg in a land mine explosion and now works as a clerk in the refugee camps. "We are all good Muslims, and nobody can change that. I don't know what all this trouble is about."

Ajib Khan, 45, has been a mechanic for Shelter Now for more than a decade. Like many older Afghan refugees, he fought against Soviet troops who occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s, and he is proud that he defended his Islamic way of life.

"These people are sinless. This is all lies," he said bitterly. Like other Shelter Now workers here, he has several friends among those arrested, and he is worried about them. "We saw our brothers die for the cause of Islam, and we all sacrificed for it," he said. "Why would we want to change our religion?"

Shelter Now is a Christian charity that works both in Afghanistan and here in the Pakistani refugee camps, building houses, distributing food and providing other basic services. Although its small foreign staff and a few Pakistani workers are Christians, most of its several hundred employees in both countries are Afghan Muslims.

Taliban authorities say they caught some Shelter Now workers on Aug. 5 visiting a private home in Kabul with Bibles and Christian tapes in local languages. Officials of Shelter Now in Germany have asserted that the group does not engage in any religious activities and that any such material was only for the employees' personal use.

Managers for Shelter Now in Pakistan, who are German nationals, declined to be interviewed this week.

All of the detainees are being held incommunicado, and Western diplomats have been refused permission to visit the foreigners, though the Taliban said today that it would allow visits by the Red Cross. Noor Mohammed said he rushed to Kabul last week, asking religious clerics and Taliban contacts to help his brother, but he too returned empty-handed.

Taliban authorities said this week that they are grateful for the humanitarian work performed by Christian charities but are adamant that they must conduct no religious activities. Since the arrests, several other Christian groups in Afghanistan have continued their relief work without harassment, although sources said they have taken extra precautions.

Diplomats and international relief workers said there may be several reasons for the Taliban's crackdown. Some suggest that the religious police and Islamic hard-liners are gaining influence inside the movement, leading to stricter implementation of Islamic laws and growing intolerance of other religions. Earlier this year, the Taliban destroyed two historic statues of Buddha and said it would require all Hindus and Sikhs, a tiny minority of Afghans, to wear identifying clothing or badges.

Another factor may be the Taliban's increasing sense of isolation from the world, and distrust of foreign motives, as a result of U.N. sanctions that have repeatedly been imposed against the regime because of its alleged links to international terrorism and its violations of human rights. In recent months, the Taliban has announced strict rules covering foreigners' behavior, such as banning women from driving.

"I don't think this is just about Shelter Now. The space for all of us to operate is becoming narrower," said one foreign relief worker in Islamabad. The arrests, he said, have caused widespread nervousness among all relief agencies in Afghanistan, where the United Nations and other groups provide millions of dollars in annual aid to the war-ravaged, drought-stricken society.

At Shamshattoo refugee camp, a sprawling compound of mud huts about 20 miles from Peshawar, Shelter Now operations were in full swing this week, although some of its signboards have been taken down since the arrests as a precaution against trouble.

At one site, workers were doling out flour and cooking oil, provided by the U.N. World Food Program, to lines of refugees. At another, bakers were heating fragrant loaves of bread, while children wrapped them in cloth and scurried back to their huts. A few feet away was a rudimentary mosque, consisting of straw mats on the ground, where an elderly Afghan cleric said he calls workers and refugees to prayer five times a day.

Babar Samsoon, a Pakistani who was raised as a Christian and works as a manager for Shelter Now in Peshawar, said he knows all of the arrested Afghans and that all are solidly firm Muslim. He also works closely with the group's foreign staff and said he had never known any of them to promote Christianity among Afghans.

"There is so much smuggling of drugs and weapons across the border. Why should the Taliban care about a few Bibles?" Samsoon said. "Throughout history, Muslims and Christians have always had good relations. Even if someone tried to bribe or pressure anyone to change their religion, it would not be genuine conversion. You cannot change a person's heart."

© 2001 The Washington Post Company