U.S. concerned for welfare of Taliban's detainees
By Elaine Monaghan
WASHINGTON, Aug 6 (Reuters) - The United States said on Monday it was trying to use its influence to free two Americans among 24 aid workers arrested by Afghanistan's ruling Taliban on charges of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.
Such proselytizing is punishable by death under the strict Islamic law observed by the purist Islamic movement, which is not recognized as Afghanistan's legitimate leadership by the United Nations, the United States and most other governments.
"We're certainly concerned about their welfare, and we'll be doing everything we can to see to their welfare," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told a news briefing.
The Taliban said the 16 local and eight international staff arrested in the capital Kabul, including four Germans and two Australians, were working for Shelter Now International.
But SNI (http//:www.shelter.org), based in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, said although it did have a presence in Afghanistan, the detainees were working for Shelter Now, a German-based group that sometimes used SNI's name without its permission.
SNI Executive Director Norm Leatherwood told Reuters by telephone his group was trying to help Shelter Now and predicted the detainees would be freed eventually.
"My read on the situation is that the evidence collected by the Taliban ... did not indicate any concerted effort to proselytize," Leatherwood said.
"One bible was taken and a small amount of literature. I think they were there for humanitarian activities and the evidence supports that."
Leatherwood said the arrests would not affect work in Afghanistan by SNI, which is also trying to ease the impact of three years of drought and a drawn-out conflict. SNI describes itself as a non-sectarian Christian humanitarian group that gives aid with no expectation of conversion.
"We are certainly sympathetic to the plight of the people who have been detained," Leatherwood said. "We would also like to stand for their basic human right to believe as they choose. If they are, on their own time, asked questions about their faith, we would argue that they have the right to answer."
Boucher said the United States had also been in touch with Shelter Now. He gave few details on the arrests, citing privacy considerations, but added, "We are working to try to secure a swift resolution of these issues."
The United States shut the Taliban's office in New York in line with U.N. sanctions against the group. But U.S. officials used their contact with the Taliban's Pakistan office to look into the case, Boucher said.
"The Taliban officials in Islamabad tell us they have queried the Taliban in Kabul, but so far we haven't received any information, nor have they," he said. "The Taliban say the detainees are well but have not allowed anyone to contact them."
The United States urges Americans not to go to Afghanistan, using a travel warning that is published on the State Department's Web site. "Our advice to Americans going to Afghanistan is, 'Don't go to Afghanistan,"' a senior State Department official said.
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