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Western aid groups deny religious agenda in Afghanistan
KABUL (Reuters) - Two Western aid organisations have denied allegations they were engaged in Christian proselytising in Afghanistan after the government suspended their activities following a television report.
Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid said they had been operating in Afghanistan for decades and their work was entirely humanitarian.
"Norwegian Church Aid has no mandate to influence people's religious beliefs in any part of the world -- neither in Afghanistan," the organisation said on its website. (here)
A private Afghan television said the two groups were trying to convert Muslims, triggering a government investigation. Proselytising is an offence punishable by death in Afghanistan.
The government said on Monday it had no evidence against either group, but suspended them anyway pending an investigation.
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Hundreds of foreign and Afghan aid groups are involved in essential humanitarian projects across the country -- helping out in areas ranging from health to education -- but some Afghans remain sceptical of their motives and suspect they could be a front for proselytising.
Answering a question at a news conference on Tuesday, Waheed Omer, spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, said the government was taking the matter very seriously.
Proselytising is strictly forbidden in the Koran and deeply conservative Islamic Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Western forces are fighting resurgent Taliban Islamists who want the expulsion of the troops as part of a holy war.
Church World Service said the allegations against the group were false and that its work in Afghanistan was focused on health, livelihood support and education, and it had no religious agenda.
"We have never and will never engage in any religious proselytism. Such activities are contrary to our mandate as a humanitarian organization, and we fully respect the religion of the communities we serve," Maurice A. Bloem, the group's deputy director and head of programs, said in a statement on the website.
The group said it expected the suspension to be lifted in the next few days as the investigation is completed.
The latest development comes weeks after the government ordered 20 foreign aid groups and charities to close for failing to provide reports on their work and finances. Some 152 Afghan non-governmental organisations were also ordered shut.
(Additional reporting by Sayed Salahuddin; Editing by David Fox)
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