Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Under Fire, Taliban Hardens Line ; Afghanistan's Rulers Yesterday Rejected Pardons for 24 Aid Workers Accused of Promoting Christianity

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Under Fire, Taliban Hardens Line ; Afghanistan's Rulers Yesterday Rejected Pardons for 24 Aid Workers Accused of Promoting Christianity

Article excerpt

A spiraling controversy over the detention of 24 aid workers accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity has brought Afghanistan's ruling Taliban to a crucial threshold in its relationship with the outside world.

If convicted, the aid workers, with German-based group Shelter Now International, could face the death penalty under the Taliban's strict version of Islamic law. The detainees include eight foreigners from Germany, Australia, and the United States.

Taliban spokesmen say the SNI was caught "red-handed" with Christian literature, including Bibles and Christian films on computer disks.

The group denies charges of religious conversion.

The arrests come at a crucial time for aid-dependent Afghanistan, torn by two decades of civil strife.

International pressure on the Taliban is mounting as donor nations steadily reduce relief and development aid.

Adding to the pressure, are the next stage of United Nations sanctions announced last week, including international monitors in each of Afghanistan's neighboring states to guard against arms flows into Taliban territory.

The sanctions - imposed over the Taliban's unwillingness to hand over accused terrorist leader Osama bin Laden - do not apply to the movement's chief Afghan enemy. The Russia- and Central-Asia-backed Northern Alliance of Gen. Ahmed Shah Masood, which controls nearly 25 percent of Afghanistan from its base in the northern province of Badakhshan.

An internal debate

But potentially more important, the arrests intensify a debate within the Taliban over the future direction of the Islamic revolution.

Taliban moderates argue for lifting some of the religious edicts that the West finds abhorrent in order to bring more development. These include restrictions on education and freedom of movement for women and the treatment of Sikh and Hindu religious minorities. Moderates also opposed the destruction earlier this year of two giant, ancient Buddha statues considered cultural treasures by the United Nations.

Hard-liners, including the religious police and the army, argue that the Taliban is compelled to follow the Koran in creating a pure Islamic society, and that God will supply the needs of the Afghan people in accordance to their adherence to Islamic law. It is this internal power struggle that could determine future Taliban policy.

"I have no reason to doubt that the ideological struggle is going on in Kabul, but as far as certain basic fundamentals of Islam are concerned, such as religious conversion, there is really no difference between a moderate or a hard-liner," says Ejaz Haider, news editor for The Friday Times, a weekly newspaper based in Lahore, Pakistan.

The difference, he says, comes in how these groups implement laws. "If the moderates are in power, they might close down the aid group's offices and throw them out of the country. If the hard- liners are in charge, they are likely to put them on trial and send a strong message to the outside world that this behavior will not be tolerated."

The strong-message advocates appear to be winning out, for the moment.

A Taliban official yesterday ruled out pardons for the aid workers. …

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