Beliefnet
Kabul, Aug. 29--Last year at this time, Georg Taubmann was sitting in a cell awaiting trial in a Taliban court for a crime he didn't commit: converting Afghan Muslims to Christianity.

Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the trial of eight aid workers with Shelter Now International--a Christian organization that builds homes for the poor--captivated the media around the world. A confrontation between Western values and Islamic sharia law, played out in a courtroom where Taliban judges made all the rules.

After Sept. 11, everything changed. Mr. Taubmann, Shelter Now's director in Afghanistan, and his fellow aid workers became the Taliban's human shields during the bombing raids in Kabul and then on their retreat to Kandahar.

For most people, five months of interrogation, incarceration, and nightly bombing raids would have been enough to discourage any return to Afghanistan. But Taubmann, who is a German national, and several other workers of Shelter Now are back, unpacking their belongings, ready to start their lives over again building homes for Afghanistan's poor.

"God has given me my life again, not to preserve it, but to give it again to the service of others," says Taubmann, sitting on the floor of his house in Kabul, as his wife and two teenage sons move into their new home. "I asked my family, and they said, 'We want to go back to Afghanistan.' If the Afghan government allows us to come back, and if the people want us to work here again, we want to be here."

Taubmann's task will not be easy. After 18 years of working with Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and 14 years of building homes inside Afghanistan for returned refugees, Taubmann must now rebuild his credibility in the Afghan and foreign-aid community.

The position of Shelter Now in Afghanistan is still tenuous. Last December, Taubmann was invited back to Afghanistan by former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who is himself a staunch Islamic fundamentalist leader. Transitional President Hamid Karzai says the case against Shelter Now is null and void.

Yet last June, the current chief justice of Afghanistan's Supreme Court, Fazal Hadi Shinwari, announced his intention to reopen the Taliban's case against Shelter Now. It's an issue that Taubmann says will eat up much of his time, time that should be devoted to helping build homes before winter sets in. "I'm here to do my work," he says. "I need to concentrate, we have a lot to do, and we have to start all over again."

Taubmann's credibility was strained, not by his own actions, but by two young American volunteers for Shelter Now, Heather Mercer and Dana Curry. On Aug. 3, 2001, Ms. Mercer and Ms. Curry visited the home of an Afghan family they had worked with through Shelter Now. According to the two women, the family insisted on seeing a Bible and a compact disc movie of Jesus's life. Curry and Mercer complied. Immediately after showing a portion of the "Jesus Film," Mercer and Curry were arrested outside the Afghan family's home, by the Taliban religious police.

Two days later, Taliban police arrested six other bewildered workers for Shelter Now, setting up the Taliban's show trial on Sept. 8. "It was dangerous what the girls were doing, but they were set up (by the Taliban)," says Taubmann, who says he only learned the full story of the girls' off-hours proselytizing last month, when he read about it in their best-selling book "Prisoners of Hope." "I love these two girls, but they should have told me what they were doing, so I could have had some influence over them. I tried to tell them in this society what you can do and what you can't do."

For Taubmann, a devout Christian, religion is something that should be seen in a person's acts, not in their words. The purpose of Shelter Now is not to convert more Christians, but to provide homes for some of the poorest people in the world. "In Christianity, it goes against every principal of Jesus's teachings to make aid conditional," Taubmann says. "That's like if I build a house for a poor person, but only if he is a Christian. We give to everybody."

The evidence is in Shelter Now's work. "We helped people who fled the communists," he says. "When the communist government fell, we helped the people who fled the (Islamic guerrillas). We helped people who fled from the Taliban, and now, we're helping those who are fleeing from the current government, many of whom are Taliban."

But none of that mattered to the religious police who held Taubmann and seven other Shelter Now workers last summer. As members of the feared Ministry for the Protection of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the religious police were answerable only to the highest Taliban authority, Mullah Muhammad Omar himself.

The Vice and Virtue Police, as they were known, were harsh and ideological, but less cruel to the eight foreign workers of Shelter Now than they were to the 16 Afghan workers who were arrested along with them. Interrogation of foreigners involved intimidation and threats; interrogation of Afghans involved beatings and torture. "We were much more concerned about the Afghan staff than we were about the foreigners," says Len Stitt, deputy director of Shelter Now, who evacuated his own family and the remaining aid workers to Pakistan, leaving Kabul just minutes before Taliban police arrived to arrest them.

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