The Taliban, Afghanistan's radical Muslim ruling party, is holding 24 aid workers from Shelter Now, a German relief agency that builds homes for the poor, on charges of "promoting Christianity."

After arresting the workers in August, Taliban officials said they would investigate secular humanitarian organizations working in Afghanistan, including a United Nations program, to root out any banned religious activity in the desperately poor nation of 25 million people. Later that month, the Taliban shut down two more Christian relief agencies in the country, including the International Assistance Mission, which has worked in Afghanistan for more than 35 years.

"This is one of those tragic stories where the people who are trying to help and make a difference are the ones cracked down on," says James P. Dretke, executive director of the Fort Wayne, Indiana-based Zwemer Institute of Muslim Studies.

The Taliban government claims it caught two Shelter Now staffers "red-handed," attempting to teach Muslims about Christianity. The authorities confiscated dozens of video and audio tapes, Bibles translated into Pashtu and Farsi, and the book Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim (Bethany House, 1980).

Taliban officials shut down Shelter Now's Kabul office and imprisoned 16 Afghan, 4 German, 2 American, and 2 Australian aid workers on August 5. Of the eight foreigners, six are women. Family members met with the two American captives in late August.

Harsh Measures

The Taliban captured Kabul, the Afghan capital, in 1996, and now controls a majority of the country. Since then, it has implemented Islamic law.

Taliban authorities decreed in June that anyone attempting to convert an Afghan would face execution and that any Afghan who converted to another ...

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