Taliban arrests expose Christian missionary activities in Muslim countries

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Crescent International

Jumada' al-Ula' 26, 1422 2001-08-16

World

by Crescent International (World, Crescent International Vol. 30, No. 12, Jumada' al-Ula', 1422)

The Taliban authorities in Afghanistan arrested 24 staff members of a German charity working in Kabul on August 5, setting off yet another international outcry about their alleged inhumanity. The outcry was quickly muted, however, when, three days later, the Taliban displayed clear evidence that the charity had in fact been involved in covert Christian missionary work under cover of its charitable activities.

Shortly after the arrests, the Taliban authorities also published new laws governing foreigners working in Afghanistan, clarifying the confusion surrounding edicts leaked to the press in June, which had appeared harsh. Under the new laws, foreigners propogating other religions will be subjected only to a month’s imprisonment and expulsion from the country. Other regulations govern the playing of music and the drinking of alcohol, saying that these are banned only in public, not totally.

Eight of the 24 arrested were foreigners, two of them American, two Australian and four German. They were initially reported to be employees of Shelter Now International (SNI), an US-based Christian relief organization committed to providing housing for refugees in Africa, Asia and eastern Europe. The evidence discovered by the Taliban authorities clearly indicated, however, that they were involved in evangelical work. It included thousands of Bibles translated into local languages, as well as large numbers of audio- and video-tapes of Christian teachings.

Moreover, it soon also became clear from other evidence developments that there was substance to the Taliban’s claims. The day after the arrests, the SNI’s base office in Wisconsin, USA, issued a statement denying that those arrested had any connection with them. The statement said that they were employed by a German-based agency that has “sometimes used the name Shelter Now without SNI’s permission, thus creating the confusion surrounding this incident.”

The German agency referred to by SNI was subsequently identified as Vision for Asia, a US-German evangelical group specifically committed to spreading Christianity among “the unreached non-Christians of the World”.

However, Mike Heil, Vision for Asia’s spokesman in the US, denied that the eight arrested in Kabul had any connection with the organization, although he admitted knowing them. Instead, he insisted that they were working for a SNI affiliate based in Germany. He also pointed out the danger to the eight prisoners of identifying them with Vision for Asia. “It’s a potentially dangerous problem,” he said, “because Vision for Asia is an evangelical organization and Shelter Now is a humanitarian one. Although we work together our mandates are different and distinct. Because we have been linked so closely in the press, in my mind it’s putting the workers from Shelter Now that are being detained in more jeopardy.”

Heil’s position, however, is made untenable by SNI’s prior denial that those arrested have any connection with it; instead it seems in line with SNI’s claim that they are connected with a group that “sometimes use[s] the name Shelter Now without permission.” In fact, SNI’s hands are hardly clean either. In the early 1990s, SNI were expelled from Pakistan, where they had been working among Afghan refugees, precisely because their workers were trying to Christianize Afghan refugees.

The Ottawa Citizen newspaper pointed out on August 8 that SNI’s own website also promotes missionary work under cover of charitable activities. Commenting on the expulsion of some workers from Afghanistan in 1998, the site reads in part: “Obviously being a strict Muslim country, foreign missionaries are not allowed to come there and evangelize, but there are many Christians who have come as aid workers... People in Afghanistan have never heard the name of Jesus Christ, so it is a place of tremendous need. It’s one of the final frontiers for the Gospel to penetrate. Pray for those who have been forced to leave the country and just pray that they’d be able to return.”

In another clear indication of the guilt of those arrested, Australian diplomats in Pakistan said that they would be travelling to Kabul when permission was granted, not to protest against the missionaries’ arrests or demand that they be released, but simply to ensure their safety and offer them legal representation. If the two Australians arrested had done anything wrong, he said, they would have to answer to the law of the land.

As a result of the new laws for foreigners, announced after the arrests, their punishment may not be as severe as had initially been expected, when some reports suggested that they could be executed. The risk of a month’s imprisonment and expulsion is, unfortunately, unlikely to deter other missionaries from trying to exploit the plight of Afghanistan’s suffering people.

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