Two Christian aid groups suspended by Afghan authorities
Afghan authorities have suspended two Christian foreign aid groups on suspicion of proselytising in the strictly Islamic nation and said a follow-up investigation would include whether other groups were trying to convert Muslims.
US-based Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid will not be allowed to operate while the allegations, aired on Sunday on Afghan television, are investigated, said Mohammad Hashim Mayar, the deputy director of the Afghan government office that oversees non-government organisations.
An investigation commission including officers from the National Security and Interior Ministries had been appointed, he said.
Both organisations denied the allegation, and Mr Mayar said officials did not have any evidence of proselytising beyond the television report.
"They are investigating whether the groups were proselytising or not," Mr Mayar said. "They will report back and also assess what is the impact of closing these NGOs. The investigation will include whether other groups or individuals are involved."
Norwegian Church Aid Secretary-General Atle Sommerfeldt said in a statement that his organisation has a firm policy of not attempting "to convert people to another religion" in all countries where it operates.
Maurice Bloem, deputy director of programs for Church World Service, said in a statement his organisation does not proselytize, in accordance with the code of conduct for NGOs.
Mr Bloem said Church World Service has worked inside Afghanistan since 1979, always in partnership with local Afghan organizations, and has been serving half a million people of different faiths there. He said its mission is to assist the Afghan people.
Proselytizing is illegal in Afghanistan, as it is in many Muslim countries. It is a hot-button issue for many Afghans sensitive to the influence of the scores of foreign aid groups operating in the country to help it recover from decades of war.
Church World Service is a cooperative ministry of more than 30 Protestant and Orthodox denominations in the United States and works in more than 80 countries. It is headquartered in Elkhart, Indiana. Norwegian Church Aid, which is tied to Norway's Lutheran state church and receives financial support from the Norwegian government, operates in about 125 countries, providing long-term development and emergency response aid, according to its website. It said it has been working in Afghanistan since 1979.