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Aid workers could still face death

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KABUL, Afghanistan — Most foreign ministers do not begin news conferences with religious commentary, but Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil seemed compelled to explain that the people of Afghanistan have great respect for Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus was not only a man of wisdom but also someone who "cured lepers" and "brought the dead back to life."

But Jesus was not the greatest of the holy men, Muttawakil further expounded. That distinction goes to "Muhammad, peace be upon him, in that he was the last prophet."

Such matters of comparative theology are currently a pertinent topic in Afghanistan, for while Jesus may be highly regarded here, Christianity is not — and that has become yet another big source of friction between international relief agencies and the Taliban mullahs who rule one of the world's poorest countries.

The news conference came on the third day of closed-door court proceedings for eight foreign aid workers accused of preaching Christianity, a crime that the Taliban suggest may bring them the death penalty.

Muttawakil used the news conference to display what he called more evidence of Christian evangelism: confiscated Bibles in local languages, audio tapes and videos.

"These books say Jesus Christ was the son of God," he said, holding up a children's book with Bible lessons on flash cards. "We don't believe this. We believe Jesus was a prophet but not the son of God."

The Christian materials were said to have been found in the vacated offices of the U.S.-based International Assistance Mission, one of two aid groups that were expelled from the country last week. Some 50 employees of the agency, most of them Americans, hurriedly departed, leaving behind their work of feeding the hungry.

Had the "hundreds" of Persian- and Pashto-language Bibles been found earlier, these foreigners might too have been arrested — or that is what the Taliban are declaring publicly. Privately, some officials say the timing was a way to avoid adding to the headache of what to do about the eight Christians already imprisoned since early August.

Those arrested aid workers — two Americans, two Australians and four Germans — were employed by the German-based agency Shelter Now. Sixteen other workers, all Afghans, are also jailed. But court proceedings began only against the foreigners on Tuesday.

There has been confusion about the possible punishments for preaching Christianity. A recent edict would seem to indicate that the penalty for foreigners is three to 10 days in prison followed by expulsion.

But recently, Muttawakil said that this rather light jail term applies only to people accused of the crime. "In this case, there is a difference. This is not just an accusation. There is proof."