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Taliban display Christian items

3 diplomats get briefing on trial of 8 aid workers

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KABUL, Afghanistan — As the trial of eight foreign aid workers charged with preaching Christianity finished its third day Thursday, outside the court the ruling Taliban displayed Christian materials it said were evidence of proselytizing by two other relief groups.

The hard-line Islamic Taliban seized the items when it closed the offices of the International Assistance Mission and expelled its estimated 50, mostly American, employees a week ago. It also shut down SERVE, a self-described Christian aid group, last week and told its foreign workers to leave the country.

The eight aid workers — two Americans, four Germans and two Australians — on trial were employees of Shelter Now International, a Christian aid organization headquartered in Germany. They were arrested nearly a month ago, and it is unclear how long their trial will last.

The parents of the two Americans, Dayna Curry, 29, and Heather Mercer, 24, visited their daughters Thursday afternoon — their third visit since arriving in the capital 10 days ago. After their last visit on Saturday they said their daughters were healthy and in good spirits.

Also on Thursday, three Western diplomats met Taliban foreign ministry officials, their first meeting in more than one week.

"It is very clear now that the ministry of foreign affairs wants to keep us informed," said David Donahue, consul-general at the U.S. Embassy in neighboring Pakistan. He is here with his Australian and German colleagues.

Meanwhile, the Taliban foreign ministry handed out copies of the IAM's constitution, which says the group's purpose was to "help in strengthening the Christian Church in Afghanistan."

The Taliban also displayed Persian language Bibles and Pashtu-language children's books about the life of Jesus Christ.

There were several slides depicting the life of Christ. They showed flash cards for learning the Bible in local languages, embroidered crosses and a crucifix.

The group was also accused of using Bibles to teach English. They ran extensive English-language classes for Afghans throughout the country.

"The two (groups) said they didn't know the reason for their expulsion. They forced us to show you what we have found," Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil said.

The Taliban also announced a new commission designed to "prevent anti-Islamic activities of international aid organizations," the Taliban's Hawad newspaper reported Thursday.

Muttawakil told reporters the commission would enforce existing rules that international aid organizations had previously ignored, like depositing their money in the Afghan State Bank and hiring a Taliban-approved Afghan to run the group.

The commission includes representatives of the foreign ministry and the ministry for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, which runs the religious police.

The religious police enforce Taliban edicts based on their interpretation of the Islamic holy book the Qur'an. They publicly punish offenders.

The Taliban's Chief Justice Noor Mohammed Saqib has refused to say when the aid workers' trial will be completed or whether the families of the American women, who are in Kabul, will be allowed to attend the hearings.

Sixteen Afghan staff were arrested along with the foreign aid workers. They will be tried separately.

In an interview with the Taliban's Bakhtar News Agency, Saqib on Wednesday said the accused would be allowed to hire a lawyer — either foreign or Afghan.

Saqib and 14 fellow clerics are reviewing the evidence collected by the religious police. But the final verdict and sentencing rests with the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

In July, the Taliban issued an edict saying the punishment for a foreigner caught proselytizing was jail and expulsion.

But Saqib said it is "premature" to discuss what the punishment would be at this stage in the trial.