December 4, 2001 | Commentary on Religion and Civil Society, Civil Society

What a Relief: Good Samaritans in Afghanistan are Rescued

Clearly the Afghan people -- the men jubilantly removing beards, the women veils -- have welcomed liberation from the Taliban. But perhaps no one has welcomed it more than the 24 international relief workers, including two Americans, charged with "promoting Christianity." These volunteers with Shelter Now, the German-based relief agency, were arrested in August and put on trial for violating the country's Islamic law, which severely limited religious expression. They might have been executed had U.S. Special Forces not intervened.

The ordeal of these Good Samaritans points out a dilemma for true believers: Their religion moves them to perform works of astonishing bravery and sacrifice. Yet they cannot, as required, completely quarantine their faith from their rescue efforts.

True, Shelter Now announces its mission in secular terms: to provide humanitarian help "to relieve the miseries of refugees." Active in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for nearly 20 years, it plays a crucial role in international winter-relief programs. Up to 10,000 families a month get assistance -- including food, medical care and temporary housing -- from Kabul to the northwestern border towns in Pakistan. In some refugee camps, Shelter Now is the only nongovernmental organization still operating.

Nevertheless, most Shelter Now staffers, such as Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, are committed Christians. A faith that flings people into harm's way for the sake of strangers is not easily contained. And that presents a problem for religious regimes that treat nonconformists as enemies of the state.

Soon after seizing power in 1996, the Taliban set up a Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Suppression of Vice. It enforced strict speech and dress codes, quizzed citizens about their knowledge of the Koran and handed out beatings to those not praying at appointed times. Television, movies, music, video cassettes -- just about anything that might carry a message of dissent -- was banned.

Shelter Now says that its workers obeyed laws against proselytizing -- a condition of its operation in Afghanistan. But it acknowledges that its staffers will answer religious questions when they come up. The problem for paranoid regimes is that those questions will always come up.

You'd think that with more than three million Afghans living as refugees, the Taliban would have welcomed any help they could get. Instead they vowed to scrutinize all humanitarian organizations in the country, including a United Nations program, to root out illicit religion. That list of groups included World Relief, which resettles Afghan refugees in the U.S.; Franklin Graham's Samaritan Purse, which is trying to open a hospital in the country before year's end; and Tear Fund, run by Britain's Evangelical Alliance, which provides water and shelter to displaced Afghans.

This highlights a deep contradiction in Islam. Muslim revolutionaries excoriate secularization as an evil force, blaming it on the Jews, the U.S., the West. But they are unwilling to carve out even a limited civic space for religious minorities, demanding that all other faiths -- even other versions of Islam -- be suppressed or "privatized" to the point of invisibility. Such Islamists thereby encourage either dishonesty or disbelief, becoming the handmaidens, ironically, of secular cynicism.

The Taliban used a coercive state to impose a religious ideology on its people. That gives America's secular elites, alas, more excuses to anathematize religious belief of any kind -- a policy they seem to be perfecting. Recall the dire warnings leveled at President Bush's faith-based agenda: that church-based assistance dare not expose people in need to religion. Or consider the legal attacks against the Boy Scouts, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. All are targets of civil libertarians ultimately because of their religious views.

The lesson of the Taliban is thus two-edged: They remind us, by negative example, that the separation of church and state is a great safeguard for political and religious liberty. At the same time their draconian exclusions make plain that the separation of faith from life is not possible. Just ask the Americans from Shelter Now, or the Afghans whose lives they helped reclaim.

Joe Loconte is a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

About the Author

Joseph Loconte William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society

Originally appeared in the Wall Street Journal