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Afghanistan suspends Christian aid groups

TV report accuses them of trying to convert Muslims

A US soldier walked past an Afghan boy as he provided security for aid workers last week in Kandahar. Two aid groups, American and Norwegian, have been accused of proselytizing. A US soldier walked past an Afghan boy as he provided security for aid workers last week in Kandahar. Two aid groups, American and Norwegian, have been accused of proselytizing. (Nikola Solic/ Reuters)
Associated Press / June 1, 2010

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan authorities suspended two Christian foreign aid groups yesterday on suspicion of proselytizing in the strictly Islamic nation and said a follow-up investigation would include whether other groups were trying to convert Muslims.

US-based Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid will not be allowed to operate while the allegations, aired Sunday on Afghan television, are investigated, said Mohammad Hashim Mayar, the deputy director of the Afghan federal office that oversees nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs.

An investigation commission including officers from the national security and interior ministries had been appointed, he said.

Both organizations denied the allegation, and Mayar said officials did not have any evidence of proselytizing beyond the television report.

“They are investigating whether the groups were proselytizing or not,’’ Mayar said. “They will report back and also assess what is the impact of closing these NGOs. The investigation will include whether other groups or individuals are involved.’’

Atle Sommerfeldt, Norwegian Church Aid secretary general, 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.

Maurice Bloem, deputy director of programs for Church World Service, said in a statement that proselytizing is against his organization’s code of conduct.

Bloem said Church World Service has worked inside Afghanistan since 1979, always in partnership with local Afghan organizations, and has been serving half a million people of different faiths there. He said its mission is to assist the Afghan people.

Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, as it is in many Muslim countries. It is a hot button issue for many Afghans sensitive to the influence of the scores of foreign aid groups operating in the country to help it recover from decades of war.

The television report, which interviewed local police saying they had heard rumors of the charities’ proselytizing, triggered a demonstration by several hundred students at Kabul University yesterday.

The group shouted death threats toward foreigners who seek to convert Muslims and demanded that 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 said. Police stood by but did not intervene.

Church World Service is a cooperative ministry of more than 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations in the United States and works in more than 80 countries. It is headquartered in Elkhart, Ind. Norwegian Church Aid, which is tied to Norway’s Lutheran state church and receives financial support from the Norwegian government, operates in about 125 countries, providing long-term development and emergency response aid, according to its website. It also has been in Afghanistan since 1979.

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