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September 7, 2002
Column #1097

''Prisoners of Hope: Captivity & Freedom in Afghanistan''

     What is the best way to commemorate the tragic events of 9/11? 

     The TV Specials have already begun. Undoubtedly there will be news magazine cover stories. Some churches and mosques have scheduled special services. 

     I have a radical alternative suggestion. Read the new book by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, ''Prisoners of Hope: The Story of Our Captivity and Freedom in Afghanistan.'' 

     ''Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry decided to go help people who needed help,'' said President Bush upon their release from prison. ''Their faith led them to Afghanistan. One woman who knows them best put it this way: they had a calling to serve the poorest of the poor, and Afghanistan is where that calling took them... I talked to them right after their release, their freedom, and I sensed no bitterness in their voices, no fatigue, just joy. It was an uplifting experience for me to talk to these courageous souls.''

     Growing up, both girls saw their parents divorce and for a time, lived recklessly. Dayna got pregnant on her 17th birthday and had an abortion. Both made a Christian conversion and attended Baylor University, where they decided ''to go as Christian aid workers to a country where a harsh unpredictable regime curtailed religious freedom,'' which sparked "serious alarm" by their parents and friends, they concede. 

     ''We were motivated to serve the poor by our love for Jesus...We wanted to go to Afghanistan because we knew few others were willing to do so,'' they write.

     They went with Shelter Now International (SNI) where they created a school for 70 street children, giving them a hot meal and job training. They helped many widows, such as buying eggs from Leena who sold 20-25 eggs a week for two pennies per egg profit. To increase her income they bought her some chickens, so she could keep all of the profit. Such stories reveal the remarkable selfless nature of their service. 

     Within four months of their arrival, however, they were arrested in August, 2001 and taken before the Supreme Court of Afghanistan not even knowing the charges. Their crime, they learned days later, was spreading the ''abolished Religion of Christianity.'' They were charged with inviting an Afghan family to accept Christianity. The evidence against them was a CD of the Jesus film which they had showed on a lap top computer to a family at its request.

     Actually, they did not explicitly try to covert the family to Christianity. They had visited the family before, and prayed for the healing of a large sore in a child's mouth, ''in the name of Jesus.'' The family asked them back, saying the child was healed which prompted more questions about Christianity, such as ''Do Christians fast?'' That moved Heather to offer to come back and show them a film about the life of Jesus so they could better understand what motivated them. 

     However, it was clearly a set up. Strange men were present. They were arrested as they left the home.

     What were the Taliban really like? On one hand, the women saw the harshness of the regime. Dayna was once whipped for walking through a bazaar. But they were never physically abused in the three prisons they were shuffled to. A head jailer name Najib, ''behaved toward us in a paternal way,'' with his personal cook preparing their food. Several translators took considerable risk in allowing them to call their parents.

     Heather and Dayna were told two planes had crashed into each other over New York, killing 400 people. For that America would attack Afghanistan - which made no sense. All other Americans were evacuated to Pakistan, including their parents who had just arrived. 

     The women were the only Americans in Kabul when American bombs began to fall. Heather was so frightened she slept under her bed. Ultimately, their Taliban jailers fled the city with them, exposing them to their greatest danger. 

     Heather and Dayna's faith sustained them throughout their ordeal. They worshiped every morning and evening, and sang songs to keep their courage up. They even composed songs combining the Psalms with their acute circumstances.

     Their personal story, written with Stacy Mattingly, is fast-paced and uplifting in unexpected ways. We see the purity of their Christian love for Afghan people, who are given a human face - their stark need and diverse personalities - missing from news reports. 

     ''It's a wonderful story about prayer, about a faith that can sustain people in good times and in bad times,'' said President Bush in the Rose Garden last November.


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