The following editorial appeared in Wednesday's edition of the Sydney Morning Herald, Australia:
That 24 foreign and local aid workers, including two Australians, are facing the death penalty in Afghanistan for 'propagating Christianity' is further evidence of the determination and brutality of the Taliban regime. The Taliban, which is carving out a hardline, isolationist Islamic state, has been shadowing the Christian relief agency Shelter Now International for some time. During a raid on its Kabul office on Monday, police netted Christian literature translated into the local Dari language, a Bible and two computers, alleged evidence the organization was going beyond its welfare brief and seeking converts among Afghanistan's poor.
The plight of the aid workers highlights the fine line between the delivery of desperately needed humanitarian aid and the export of the donors' value system, including religion. Western Christian missionaries once believed they had a duty to "civilize the savages" and their proselytizing efforts ravaged traditional societies across the globe.
Christian aid organizations remain active but have shifted from aggressive efforts to convert, to concentrate on humanitarian aid. The delivery of aid, often in areas where no other help is available, is both a noble and Christian pursuit. But the use of aid organizations to gain access for conversion is not. For this reason, some nations, such as China and India, have imposed restrictions on visas for Christian missionaries.
In Afghanistan, aid organizations must work within the laws of one of the world's most restrictive regimes. Efforts to convert Muslims attract the death penalty under the Taliban's strict interpretation of Islamic law. As one aid worker, with experience in Afghanistan, has said: 'Shelter Now International must have known it was courting trouble.' It is the responsibility of any organization or individual operating in a foreign country to understand the local laws and to work within them.