US aid workers held in captivity for more than three months in Kabul, admitted yesterday that they had been partially guilty of the "crimes" for which they had been arrested by the Taliban in August.
"Eighty per cent of the charges against us were false," said Dayna Curry, one of the eight imprisoned workers for Shelter Now International, at a press conference in Islamabad. "But I did make a copy of a book with stories about Jesus in English and Farsi and gave it to a friend who had asked for it.
"We also showed a film about Jesus to some people. In Islamic countries the issue of faith is a top priority. They shared their religious beliefs with us and also asked us about our own religion – that was our defence."
Teaching any religion except Islam was a crime punishable by death under the Taliban regime. Shelter Now is a German-based organisation but much of its funding comes from right-wing US Christian organisations and many believe one of its aims is the conversion of young Muslims worldwide. "Either they were extremely naïve or they did have an agenda," said one Western diplomat in Islamabad.
After their arrest the Taliban showed television film footage of Christian pamphlets allegedly found in their house. However, Georg Taubmann, the lleader of the Shelter Now Afghan operation, who has been working with Afghans for 17 years, denied that they had been trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. He said. "We knew that if we tried to convert people under the Taliban we'd be dead the next day."
The eight foreign workers – two Americans, two Australians and four Germans – were arrested on 5 August. They were kept in a series of jails before their dramatic rescue by Northern Alliance forces which captured Ghazni, 50 miles southwest of Kabul, on Monday. They were evacuated by US helicopters on Wednesday night.
The eight were treated relatively decently by the Taliban – they were well fed, allowed to sing hymns and hold prayer meetings and were given bottled water to drink. "One Taliban guard said to me: 'I would die before I would let anything bad happen to you,'" said Ms Curry. "They called us guests in their country." Heather Mercer, the other American, said: "I don't have any animosity towards the Taliban. They were doing what they thought was their job and they treated us with respect."