INTRO: The United Nations World Food Program, W-F-P, is calling on the Taleban authorities in Afghanistan to stop accusing its aid workers of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. Lisa Schlein in Geneva reports the agency says the charges are harming W-F-P humanitarian operations in the country.
TEXT: The World Food Program says the allegations against its staff in Afghanistan are baseless.
W-F-P spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume says the Taleban authorities are accusing the agency of spreading, what it calls, religious propaganda. She says these accusations stem from W-F-P's association with a private German aid organization, Shelter Now. The Taleban accuse that group of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. It has arrested eight foreigners and 16 Afghans who have been working with Shelter Now.
Ms. Berthiaume says Taleban assertions that W-F-P is linked to religious conversions are completely false.
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We have never been involved in propagating any religious persuasion either in Afghanistan or elsewhere in the world. W-F-P is committed -- strongly committed -- to the U-N principles of impartiality and neutrality. We provide help to Afghan people solely on the basis of needs, without any religious, political, or ethnic bias.
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The private German group, Shelter Now, has been helping W-F-P distribute food to thousands of hungry people in Afghanistan. It is one of 150 private aid agencies with whom W-F-P works.
Ms. Berthiaume says W-F-P cannot be responsible for all the activities undertaken by its aid partners in Afghanistan.
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We are helping three-million people in that country. So, we are calling on the Taleban to help us achieve this task, which is a very difficult and important one, and stop obstructing our work.
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Afghanistan is living through its third consecutive year of drought. The United Nations estimates 12-million people, one-half of Afghanistan's population, is affected by the drought.
W-F-P is feeding three-million of those most threatened. Last year, Ms. Berthiaume says Shelter Now distributed two-thousand tons of food out of a total of 140-thousand tons.
She says continued harassment of humanitarian workers by the Taleban could have serious consequences for the millions of people who rely on international aid for their survival. (Signed)