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The German-based relief group that ushered Heather Mercer into one of the world's most hostile lands claims that it is not a religious organization and that its workers, though all Christians, never preached in Afghanistan.

Shelter Germany, which is not affiliated with Shelter Now International, says its goal is to help the impoverished people of Afghanistan and Pakistan become self-sufficient through digging wells and building homes and bakeries.

The group's offices, a two-hour drive west of Berlin, serve as a foothold in the Western world to channel financial and administrative support for its work in those two Central Asian countries.

Six women and two men are being detained. Among them is Mercer, 24, whose mother and stepfather live in Lewiston.

Shelter Now International had been working in Afghanistan and Pakistan since the early 1980s, assisting refugees from the war between Russia and Afghanistan.

When the war ended, relief efforts continued in both countries. But in 1990, radical Islamic fundamentalists destroyed Shelter Now International's concrete factory in Peshawar, Pakistan, according to Joachim Jager, associate director of Shelter Germany.

A year later, Georg Taubmann, a German national, returned to Pakistan and started two new relief organizations known as Shelter Now Pakistan and Shelter Now Afghanistan, which are backed by Shelter Germany. Taubmann is now one of the eight captives.

"The problem was the world had no interest in Afghanistan after the war. They thought everything was fine, but that wasn't true," Jager said in a telephone interview last week.

In 1993, Shelter Germany was established to serve as the international umbrella group supporting the field efforts in the two countries.

"Every relief organization in a Third World country needs a Western organization to back it," said Jager, explaining that a mixture of private and public funds pay for improvement projects in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A check with the United Nations office in charge of granting accreditation to nongovernment organizations supplying relief aid determined that Shelter Germany and its two field groups are not recognized by the U.N.

To obtain accreditation, a number of steps must be taken to demonstrate the viability of the relief group's work, a U.N. spokesman said.

"We are a small organization, and we are in the process of seeking an audit by an independent group in Germany that monitors charities and relief efforts," Jager said. "In Pakistan, our financial books are reviewed by officials there."

Officials at Shelter Now International USA in Oshkosh, Wis., said they have no affiliation with the German group.

"The German organization has sometimes used the name Shelter Now without Shelter Now International's permission, thus creating confusion surrounding the incident," a news release issued by the Wisconsin group stated. "The two organizations are working together to eliminate the confusion caused by the common use of the Shelter Now name."

Jager explained that Shelter Germany continued with the similar name after its rebirth in Pakistan and Afghanistan in 1991 because of the name's high level of recognition.

To cut down on overhead expenses, Jager said that when Taubmann restarted the Shelter Now efforts in those countries, it was decided that all foreigners would serve as unpaid volunteers.

"We have about 30 to 40 foreigners who volunteer in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Jager said. "About 15 were in Afghanistan, but now they have left the country, except for the captives."

Most of the volunteers come from Germany, Australia and the United States, he said. Among the arrested relief workers, Taubmann is the oldest at 45, and Mercer is the youngest.

In addition to the volunteers, about 200 Afghan and Pakistan natives are paid employees at the groups' bread bakeries and concrete plants.

Light and durable concrete beams, reinforced with steel, are used for roofs in the construction of homes because wood and other building material are scarce and expensive in that part of the world, Jager said.

There are five concrete plants in Afghanistan and one in Pakistan. The group also supplies food and drinking water to refugee camps straddling the border of the two countries.

Prospective foreign relief workers, Jager said, are carefully screened before they are accepted for duty with Shelter Now.

Mercer, according to Jager, first went to Pakistan, where relief agency personnel educated her in the customs, laws and languages of the Afghan people. She was required to visit Afghanistan to see for herself if it was a place she could work, he added.

Mercer, Jager explained, had to demonstrate she would be able to support herself financially, which she did, though Jager says he did not know the source of her money to cover living expenses.

"Before we were reorganized, we would lose our foreign workers if a project was delayed and there was no money to pay them. They would return home to their respective countries. That's why we decided on volunteers only," Jager said.

He says that although Shelter Germany instructs its workers not to preach Christianity, he is certain that they frequently discussed their religious beliefs with the Afghan people, who are ruled by the Taliban, Muslim fundamentalists.

"There is a big difference between preaching and discussing Christianity," he said. "In Afghanistan, it is normal to speak about religion. Afghans ask foreigners what they do and what their religion is. They say they've heard all foreigners have no religion.

"That gives us the possibility to say we believe in God and speak what is in our hearts," said Jager, 32, who has served as a volunteer relief worker in Afghanistan.

He firmly believes the captive workers would have gone into Afghanistan even if they had known ahead of time that they would face imprisonment.

"I'm sure they would have gone anyway, because they love the Afghan people and see their need," Jager said.

"We are certain they did nothing wrong," Jager said in disputing the charges that they propagated Christianity.


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