MAXWELL:  Christian zealotry risks lives

8/26/2001 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Christianity, the major religion in the West, has no place in many other parts of the world. Jesus Christ is persona non grata in Afghanistan under the leadership of the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban regime. In fact, Christianity is verboten inside what may be the world’s purest, most repressive Muslim nation.

The New York Times reports that on Aug. 3, 24 aid workers _ 16 Afghans, 4 Germans, 2 Australians and 2 Americans _ were arrested in Kabul, the Afghanistan capital, on charges of preaching the Christian Gospel and becoming overly familiar with Afghans in their homes.

Specifically, religion police from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice caught the workers, who are employed by the German-based group Shelter Now International, with a large cache of video and audio tapes extolling the life of Jesus, a book titled Sharing Your Faith With a Muslim and dozens of Bibles translated into Farsi (modern Persian) and Pashto (an Iranian language that is an official language of Afghanistan).

Again, outsiders are forbidden from bringing non-Muslim materials into the country without approval of the Taliban. The Shelter Now workers had no such approval, and the penalty for their transgressions is death, at least for now.

Sheer arrogance and Christian zealotry drove Shelter Now’s foreign aid workers to flout the law.

As an American journalist who travels to Islamic states, I am careful to follow the laws of my host nations, and I go out of my way to respect their customs. The one time I crossed the line, when I mistakenly photographed a Palestinian Authority building under construction in Gaza City, I was promptly arrested, and my camera and notes were confiscated. I know better than to ogle Arab women on the street. In Jerusalem, a religious city, I do not drive in Hasidic neighborhoods during Sabbath.

Referring to the Shelter Now workers, Abdul Ghafoor Afghani, the Taliban’s chief of protocol, told the Times: “These foreigners were given visas as aid workers, not missionaries. In your country, if I am caught spying, I would not be spared, yes? This is the same. We have taken some confessions. The two American women (Dana Curry and Heather Mercer) were caught, as you say, red-handed, in an Afghan’s house, where they know they were not to go. They were trying to show a video about Jesus, from his birth to his, what is the word, I think it is crucifixion.”

The charges against the workers are serious. Besides risking their own lives, they jeopardized the entire $300-million annual aid effort to the country, which is experiencing its fourth year of a devastating drought and sees no immediate end to its 22-year civil war.

The Times reports that Afghanistan may be the world’s neediest state. More than 3-million people, about 15 percent of the population, rely on foreign goods for their major sources of nutrition. Without such aid, these people would subsist on tea and bread.

As a result of the arrests and stepped up surveillance and investigations, other aid groups, including the United Nations’ massive World Food Program, have been put on notice. Threats of expulsion come daily, and fear runs high among the groups.

If these groups are kicked out, many hungry Afghans, including tens of thousands of children and mothers, may starve because a handful of zealots tried to cultivate a handful of apostates.

Few other foreign aid workers sympathize with their evangelizing peers. “These laws were well-known to everyone,” Fayaz Shah, director of the World Food Program, told the Times. “It’s like walking in a minefield, and when one blows, you yell, “Why did this happen?’ But you know. You were in a minefield.”

Another American asked: “Why did they break the law, especially this law? Worse yet, they dragged their Afghan workers into this. After some political games, the foreigners will probably be kicked out of the country as their punishment. But the Afghans, I am afraid they are going to be killed.”

I spoke with three World Food Program officials in New York who said they also fear for the lives of the 16 Afghan workers and for the lives of other Afghans who let aid workers into their homes.

Requesting anonymity, one official said: “We plead with our workers to keep their Christianity to themselves. Our job is to feed the hungry, not convert them. We warn our people. They know the Taliban’s reputation. The whole world knows about the Taliban. These young Americans were motivated by a desire to do good, but they violated the laws of a foreign country. They may have hurt a lot of innocent people _ for a very long time.”

According to the Times, a major hospital in Kabul has been shut down because aid workers snub Taliban prohibitions and because foreign aid officials and the Taliban’s Ministry of Public Health cannot agree on which should hire local Afghan employees.

Currently, the fate of the foreign aid workers is in limbo. Just last week, the Taliban _ officially known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan _ refused to let German, American and Australian diplomats see their jailed citizens.

Some of these diplomats wonder why they cannot visit their countrymen. On the simplest level, Germany, the United States and Australia, among many other nations, do not recognize the Taliban as a legitimate state, and the Taliban, therefore, does not recognize emissaries from these nations. Perhaps more important, Western leaders _ who are overwhelmingly Christian _ are ignorant of Islam and the role this male-centered faith plays in official decision-making and in the daily lives of Afghan citizens.

One thing, however, is clear: Christianity is taboo in this state where whip-toting religion police have unlimited authority to kick in doors and search homes for Christian contraband.