By Worthy News Staff
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (Worthy News)-- Christian aid workers in Afghanistan faced legal challenges Wednesday, June 2, after authorities ordered two Western church groups to stop their activities amid suspicions they were converting Muslims to Christianity -- an offense that carries the death penalty under Afghan law.
"If proven after the investigation that they were involved in conversion activities, they will be introduced to the judicial authorities," confirmed a spokesman for the Ministry of Economy, Sediq Amarkhil.
The humanitarian aid groups Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) and the U.S. based Church World Service (CWS) have denied involvement in evangelism, commonly described as "proselytism."
NCA Secretary-General Atle Sommerfeldt said in a statement that his organization has a firm policy of not attempting "to convert people to another religion" in all countries where it operates. "Our work is entirely humanitarian -- meaning we are impartial, neutral, and independent," added CWS Deputy Director and Head of Programs Maurice A. Bloem. "We fully adhere to and support the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct, which mandates that [non governmental organizations] do nothing to further a religious agenda."
He said his organization respects other religions and that it has "never and will never engage in any religious proselytism" as "such activities are contrary to our mandate" as a humanitarian organization.
"Any allegations that we have engaged in proselytism are entirely false -- and we are fully cooperating with the investigation by the Ministry of Economy and look forward to its result," Bloem added.
He said the work of CSW's 300 local staff in Afghanistan is intended solely to support the humanitarian needs of Afghan communities, especially in areas of health, livelihood support, and education.
The investigation of the National Security and Interior Ministries into the activities of the church groups followed an Afghan television report which cited local police as saying they "had heard rumors" of the charities' proselytizing activities.
The report triggered a demonstration by several hundred students at Kabul University on Monday, May 31, witnesses said.
Demonstrators shouted death threats toward foreigners who seek to convert Muslims and demanded the government expel anyone who tried, said Mohammad Najib, a professor at the school who witnessed the protest.
The group blocked the road outside the university's main gate for more than an hour before the demonstrators moved off peacefully, Najib told reporters. Police reportedly stood by but did not intervene.
Hundreds of international and Afghan groups are involved in essential humanitarian aid projects across the country, in areas ranging from health to education, but some Afghans remain skeptical of their motives and suspect they could be a front for proselytizing. Weeks before their ouster in a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, the Taliban detained several Western aid workers after accusing them of proselytizing, but the group was freed in a raid by American special forces.
In 2007 Taliban insurgents kidnapped 21 South Korean Christians who were visiting as part of an evangelical church charity group and accused them of proselytizing. Two of the hostages were murdered before the rest were released, although authorities have denied any ransom was paid.
The latest official investigation into international aid groups was expected to raise tensions between the Afghan government and Western governments, who face pressure at home to withdraw their troops fighting Taliban and suspected Al-Qaida militants from Afghanistan. (With reporting by Worthy News and BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos)