Humanitarian Aid Workers Massacred by Taliban

Monday, August 9, 2010

by George Whitten, Jerusalem Bureau Chief

Jerusalem, Israel (Worthy News)-- Six American and two European aid workers were murdered in northern Afghanistan along with two Afghan colleagues as they were returning to Kabul from a medical mission in a remote mountainous area, Worthy News learned on Sunday, August 8.

The Taliban took responsibility for one of the deadliest attacks on humanitarian aid workers in Afghanistan, saying the Christian charity workers were "foreign spies" and were spreading Christianity -- a charge that the International Assistance Mission (IAM), which dispatched the team, denies.

Charges of Proselytizing Denied

IAM is a registered non-profit Christian organization based in Kabul. The humanitarian aid team had been providing eye care and other medical treatment in Nuristan, a province dominated by Taliban insurgents, according to a statement released by IAM. They were traveling unarmed and without security guards, said Dirk Frans, the group's executive director.

IAM is the longest-serving non-governmental organization in the country.  In their work since 1966 on health and economic development projects, under King Zahir Shah, the Russians, the mujaheddin government and the Taliban, and "all along we've been known as a Christian organization. That has been a non-issue," stated Frans.

"The accusation is completely baseless; they were not carrying any bibles except maybe their personal bibles," Frans continued.  "As an organization we are not involved in proselytizing at all."

"I like people who stand for a cause, but I think you really need to reflect on what you're communicating to people – and this would be my suggestion to the Taliban. Think about what you're doing. Is this the best way of serving God?",  he remarked.

"This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing," the organization wrote on its website. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."

Shift in Taliban Strategy

The attack was one of the deadliest on civilian aid workers since the war began in 2001. The execution-style killings of 10 people working for a Christian medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan fits into a Taliban insurgents’ shift in tactics: Target Western civilians, especially Christians, as "foreign invaders."

Among the dead include the team's leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who had worked in Afghanistan over the past four decades. Little, a fluent Dari speaker, had been thrown out of the country by the Taliban in 2001 during a crackdown on Christian aid groups. Three of the victims are thought to be women, including Karen Woo, a British surgeon who had written on her blog about the possible risks of traveling to the area.

"The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those who need it most," said Woo, who was due to marry this month.

Also among the group who were found massacred were:

Cheryl Beckett, 32, an American; specialized in nutritional gardening and mother-child health.

Thomas Grams, 51, a dentist from Colorado; provided dental care to children in Afghanistan and Nepal.

Glen Lapp, 40, a nurse from Lancaster, Pa.; arrived in Afghanistan in 2008.

Dan Terry, 64, had lived in Afghanistan since 1980 with his wife; had three daughters.

Ongoing Threats to Humanitarian Aid Work

The Afghan constitution is based on traditional sharia law, which strictly bans religious conversion.

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 U.S. 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.