Two international church-backed humanitarian organisations that operate in Afghanistan have been stopped from doing their work while officials investigate allegations that they have been engaging in proselytising, which they strongly deny - writes Peter Kenny.
Afghanistan has suspended the activities of Norwegian Church Aid, also known as NCA, and US-based Church World Service pending an investigation into allegations they were preaching Christianity in the Islamic nation where religious conversion is a criminal offence, Reuters Alertnet service has reported.
"Norwegian Church Aid does not proselytise in any of the countries in which it works. This policy is also enforced in Afghanistan," said NCA on its website. "Norwegian Church Aid has been working in Afghanistan since 1979 and has since 1995 mainly implemented its programmes through Afghan organisations.
"These organisations know the local conditions and culture better than international organisations do, and this means that we have earned a high level of credibility and legitimacy in Afghanistan," said NCA.
The activities of NCA have been suspended temporarily, said the Afghan Ministry of Economy.
The Geneva-headquartered ACT Alliance of 100 churches and related organisations that work together in humanitarian assistance and development, to which both the suspended groups belong, said on 1 June the suspension is expected to last only a few days.
ACT said in a statement, "A local TV station has for a long period criticised NCA for proselytising. The government has ordered the investigation to clarify what the church-based organisations are doing."
NCA General Secretary Atle Sommerfeldt said he looked forward to the investigation, being undertaken by a government commission.
"For us, this is a simple case. We don't have a mandate from the church to preach the Gospel, and as a professional international agency we also follow the international rules on religious neutrality in our operations. It will be good to get government proof of our operations, which are purely non-religious," Sommerfelt said in the ACT statement.
Church World Service also denied the allegations on proselytising, which can carry a maximum sentence of death.
"Our work is entirely humanitarian - meaning we are impartial, neutral, and independent," said CWS director of programmes, Maurice Bloem in a statement on the group's website. "We fully adhere to and support the Red Cross/Red Crescent Code of Conduct, which mandates that NGOs do nothing to further a religious agenda.
"We have never and will never engage in any religious proselytism. Such activities are contrary to our mandate as a humanitarian organisation, and we fully respect the religion of the communities we serve," Bloem said. "Any allegations that we have engaged in proselytism are entirely false - and we are fully cooperating with the investigation."
NCA has a staff of 50 in Afghanistan. Two-thirds are local Muslims. NCA also works with 13 local partners whose staff are Muslims. Sommerfeldt said the government reaction might be a misunderstanding, since his organisation has "church" mentioned in the name.
ACT Alliance said that its members in Afghanistan have avoided all symbols that can be seen as Christian, and that NCA is concerned about the demand to halt its activities while the investigation goes on.
"ACT members are involved in essential humanitarian projects across the country, helping in areas ranging from health to education," the alliance stated.
Act Alliance: www.actalliance.org/ 
Church World Service: www.churchworldservice.org/ 
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International  is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches and the Conference of European Churches.]