By Stefan J. Bos
Special correspondent for ASSIST News Service
KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (ANS) -- More than 50 foreign staff members of the US based Christian aid organizations International Assistance Mission (IAM) and Serve began leaving Afghanistan Saturday, September 1, after the Islamic Taliban regime closed their offices Friday.
Most of the workers were expected to leave by road within three days, after the Islamic rulers apparently extended an earlier 24-hour ultimatum. Six foreign workers of Partners in Aviation and Communications Technology, which is affiliated with IAM, also left their offices in the Afghan Capital Kabul, saying it was "too dangerous to remain."
The withdrawal of IAM and Serve was seen as a setback for the relief efforts in war ravaged Afghanistan. IAM, which runs two eye hospitals and several clinics, has been active in the country for more than 35 years. It has been operated by 50 mostly American expatriate workers, the British Broadcasting Corporation reported.
Its foreign volunteers, most of them Pashtu and Persian speakers, have lived in Afghanistan with their families in some of the country's poorest neighborhoods, without electricity or running water. Serve, is a smaller operation that provides solar panels as well as other shelter-related projects.
Taliban officials said the regime had decided to expel the workers after it had "received complaints" about their activities. The latest move seemed part of a Taliban crackdown against active Christians in mainly Islamic Afghanistan, which began August 5 the arrest of 24 aid workers of the German based organization Shelter Now.
Earlier this week the Taliban said it would continue legal procedures against the 24 prisoners, including eight foreigners, who are accused of spreading Christianity. Shelter Now has always denied its involvement in preaching the Gospel, saying it merely works on the Biblical principle of helping the poor.
The organization estimates that its four factories in Afghanistan produced over 130,000 low cost roofing beams since 1992, which it says enabled more than 20,000 Afghan refugees to rebuild their homes that were destroyed during two decades of wars.
Afghanistan's Taliban regime has been criticized for its alleged involvement in human rights abuses, especially toward women and minority religions. Under its strict interpretation of Islamic law anyone promoting or converting to another religion than Islam could face the death penalty, while foreigners are expected to receive jail sentences and eventual expulsion.
The head of the United Nations World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, warned this week that if aid workers were to be put to death in Afghanistan on proselytizing charges, the fall-out on international aid programs would be horrific.
UN and other officials fear that the withdrawal of aid workers will lead to even more suffering for the people of Afghanistan, a country already devastated by wars and international sanctions.