It was unknown whether the diplomats would see the 16 detained Afghans, who possibly face the death penalty if found guilty of either deserting Islam or proselytizing .Shaheen added he expected to receive visa clearance later on Thursday or Saturday for the diplomats from Australia, Germany and the United States to travel to Kabul.Friday is a holiday in Muslim Afghanistan.Twenty-four staff from the German-based relief agency Shelter Now
International -- 16 Afghans, four Germans, two Australians and two Americans -- were detained by the Taliban on August 5 on charges of trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.The diplomats were still waiting in the Pakistani capital Islamabad on Thursday, having missed a scheduled U.N. flight to the Afghan capital.The next U.N. flight is on Sunday, although an alternative way in would be
by road -- a journey of about 10 hours.
Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) quoted Taliban Deputy Foreign Minister Maulvi Abdul Rahman Zahid as saying the purist Islamic movement was ready to talk to the diplomats over the detentions and prove the group was proselytising.All 24 staff were arrested in Kabul on charges initially believed to be
punishable by death under the hardline Islamic Taliban regime. MAYBE NO DEATH PENALTYBut a U.S. official in Washington said the Taliban, who espouse a purist form of Islam, had told Washington that a decree issued in June made expulsion, not death, the likely penalty for foreigners preaching other religions to Afghan Muslims.
AIP said on Wednesday that in the light of the decree, it was wrong to presume the foreigners faced a possible death sentence.Decree number 14, relating to foreigners in Afghanistan, states that people preaching other religions to Afghan Muslims will be deported after being imprisoned for three to 10 days.But senior officials at the Taliban's foreign ministry in Kabul said they had no knowledge of Decree 14."We and the high-ranking officials of the ministry don't know about it," said an official who declined to be identified.AIP said the earlier decree, issued in January, had prescribed the death sentence to just Afghan nationals.
SUPPORT FROM PAKISTAN
Pro-Taliban Islamic clerics in Pakistan condemned what they said was an attempt to propagate Christianity under the garb of aid work and supported the death penalty for converts."There is a death sentence for treachery to one's country and accepting Islam is a commitment and a pact with God. Why shouldn't conversion be treated as treachery and be punishable by death," said Maulana Fazlur Rahman, leader of Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam, a pro-Taliban religious political party.
The Taliban said on Wednesday they had seized Christian material and had previously warned the group to stop religious activities.Mohammad Salim Haqqani, the Taliban's deputy minister for the prevention of vice and promotion of virtue, said in Kabul that thousands of Christian video and audio tapes, as well as Bibles, all in the local Pushto and Dari languages, had been found."This NGO (non-government organisation) was warned before hand ... (and) requested to refrain from such activities," Shaheen told Reuters
Esteban Witzemann, Shelter Now programme director in the northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, denied his group was involved in proselytising and said other Shelter Now staff, fearing more arrests, had fled Afghanistan.
"There might be some (material) for private use ... but what they are accused of, that they are distributing hundreds of Bibles and Christian literature and they are trying to persuade people to leave Islam and becomes Christians, all this is nonsense and not true," he said.He added he still had no contact with those arrested but that other Shelter Now staff -- including 16 other foreign nationals in Kabul and an unknown number of foreign and local staff in Herat -- had fled Afghanistan, with most going to Pakistan.