Afghanistan to probe NGOs after "preaching" report

KABUL Sun May 30, 2010 8:46am EDT

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan has launched an investigation into the activities of hundreds of aid groups after a local media report accused a Norwegian organization of preaching Christianity, a crime punishable by death, the government said on Sunday.

Foreign and Afghan non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are involved in essential humanitarian projects across the country -- helping out in areas ranging from health to education -- but some Afghans remain skeptical of their motives and suspect they could be a front for proselytizing.

Afghanistan's economy ministry, which inherited responsibility for NGOs from earlier days as the planning ministry, said it had formed a commission to investigate all NGOs after a local TV report accusing Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) of promoting Christianity.

"We are very, very serious about this matter," said Sediq Amarkhil a spokesman for the ministry.

"If proven that any NGO is operating against the norms and laws of Afghanistan and Islam and is inviting people to Christianity ... we will not only close it down, but will hand it over to the judicial and legal organs of the government."

While an NCA official declined to comment at this time, an aid insider told Reuters the matter was the result of an old misunderstanding rooted in the translation of the name of the group.

NGOs have been operating for decades in deeply Islamic Afghanistan, where tens of thousands of Western troops are fighting Taliban insurgents who have declared a jihad, or holy war, against them.

Weeks before their ouster in a U.S.-led invasion, the Taliban detained several Western aid workers after accusing them of proselytizing, but the group was freed in a raid by American special forces.

In 2007, Taliban insurgents kidnapped 21 South Koreans who were visiting as part of a church charity group and accused them of proselytizing.

Two of the hostages were murdered before the rest were released, although the government denied it had agreed to any ransom demands.

The latest probe comes weeks after the government ordered closed 20 foreign aid groups and charities for failing to provide reports on their work and finances. Some 152 Afghan non-governmental organizations were also ordered to close.

(Editing by David Fox)

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