WACO, Texas (BP)–The two American women on trial before Afghanistan’s Supreme Court for sharing their Christian faith are graduates of Baylor University and members of a nondenominational church in Waco, Texas.
The two women, Dayna Curry, 29, and Heather Mercer, 24, were arrested Aug. 3 along with four Germans, two Australians and 16 Afghans for their work with Shelter Now, a Christian aid organization based in Germany.
The 24 workers were arrested, and Bibles, videos and audio tapes were seized, by the ruling Islamic authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban, regarded by U.S. and U.N. officials as one of the world’s chief antagonists to religious freedom. The workers’ trial began Sept. 4 in Kabul, the nation’s capital.
Antioch Community Church in Waco, in an Aug. 31 news release, acknowledged that Curry and Mercer are members of the cell group-oriented congregation, which was launched in 1999 by Highland Baptist Church in Waco.
Antioch’s senior pastor, Jimmy Seibert, said in the news release, “We have two clear goals at this time, to pray and to practically serve the State Department and the families in any way possible in securing their release.”
Seibert also stated, “We are confident that God is taking care of our friends and will work through this difficult situation. At the same time, we carry a heavy burden for Dayna, Heather and their parents. These ladies are such a part of our family here, we cannot help but grieve for them and with them. It is, indeed, an honor and a privilege to be involved with them.”
Antioch members have been praying 24 hours a day as individuals and in small and large groups since their arrest Aug. 3, with Seibert noting that “we realize that the most effective thing we can do is pray.” To fellow Christians, the pastor said, “We would ask you to join us in praying for Dayna and Heather as well as the other foreign workers, the detained Afghans and for the people of Afghanistan.”
Shelter Now “is a sincerely devoted group who give their heart and effort to the people of Afghanistan,” Antioch Community Church’s news release stated. “In Pakistan, at one Afghan refugee camp of 70,000 people, they are the main providers for housing, food and water. Similar projects are also being done throughout Afghanistan. For years, they have earned the respect of the Afghan people through acts of practical service and love.”
Seibert added, “Dayna and Heather, as well as other workers at Shelter Now, desire to display the love of God in practical ways by caring for those in need. Their personal lives exude and communicate what they believe about God, and they live out their love for God through practical service.
“Dayna and Heather are both women of impeccable character with an incredible heart for the people of Afghanistan,” Seibert continued. “They have gone there to love Afghans by serving in practical ways, from feeding programs to education to health care. We are proud of the work that they do, and we are proud to be a part of their lives.”
According to a report in the Waco Tribune-Herald, Curry hails from Tennessee and is a 1993 social work graduate of Baylor University, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Mercer, from Virginia, is a 1999 Baylor graduate who earned a degree in German.
Curry joined the Shelter Now ministry in 1995; Mercer joined in March of this year, the Waco newspaper reported.
The parents of the two women visited their daughters on the afternoon of Sept. 6 — their third visit since arriving in the capital 10 days earlier, the Associated Press reported Sept. 6. After their visit on Sept. 1, the parents said their daughters were healthy and in good spirits, the AP reported.
Hanging or imprisonment could face Currey, Mercer and the six other foreign workers with Shelter Now if they are convicted for promoting Christianity, according to a Sept. 5 Reuters report quoting comments by Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Saqib in the Afghan Islam Press.
“The detained Shelter Now people will be sentenced according to Islamic Shari’a law,” Saqib was quoted as saying. “If the crime is worthy of imprisonment, they will be imprisoned. If the crime is worthy of hanging, they will be hanged.”
According to the Associated Press, Saqib told the Taliban’s Bakhtar News Agency that it is “premature” to discuss possible penalties that may be imposed by the Afghanistan Supreme Court’s 15 Islamic clerics or, ultimately, by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar.
The AP noted that a July edict issued by the Taliban stated that foreigners caught proselytizing could be published by imprisonment or expulsion.
Of the trial’s proceedings and possible length, Saqib was quoted as saying, “We want to continue this regularly and can’t say how long it will last,” according to Reuters. The Afghan workers will face a separate trial, according to news reports.
Saqib was quoted as saying that the defendants would be permitted to “bring in foreign, non-Muslim lawyers to defend themselves,” Reuters reported. There was no indication whether the Shelter Now workers had appeared before the Taliban court or whether diplomatic officials, family members or reporters would be permitted to attend the proceedings, Reuters reported.
In other developments in Afghanistan:
— The Taliban announced Sept. 6 that a new commission has been formed to “prevent anti-Islamic activities of international aid organizations,” according to the Taliban’s Hawad newspaper, according to the Associated Press. The commission includes representatives of the foreign ministry and the ministry described by the AP as responsible for the promotion of virtue and the prevention of vice, which runs the religious police.
— The Taliban closed the offices of two other Christian aid groups in Afghanistan Aug. 31, the International Assistance Mission and SERVE, and seized various Christian materials, according to news reports. AIM, which operates two hospitals and several clinics in Afghanistan, is based in the United States; SERVE was not identified in terms of its home base or scope of ministry in Afghanistan. An estimated 50 AIM workers, mostly American, were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours.
(The German-based Shelter Now group with which the two American workers are affiliated is not connected with a Christian humanitarian agency named Shelter Now International based in Oshkosh, Wis., according to the latter group. The Wisconsin-based organization, on its website, said it has worked among Afghan refugees since its founding in 1979 “and is very concerned for the safety and welfare of all those involved [in the recent arrests], including both the foreign aid workers and the Afghan national workers.”)
According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, established by Congress in 1998, “The United States does not recognize the Taliban regime as the government of Afghanistan.” The country “has no functioning constitution or basic law.”
USCIRF described the Taliban as “a particularly severe violator of religious freedom,” having “perpetrated widespread violations of human rights and humanitarian law through years of armed conflict and aggressive imposition of their interpretation of Shari’a law. In the process, they have engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom, including murder, detention, severe physical punishments, and degrading treatment, based in significant part upon the religion of the victims. Atheism and conversion from Islam are both considered apostasy by the Taliban, and are punishable by death.”
A United Nations inquiry in 1999 cited the Taliban for “deliberate and arbitrary killing, torture including rape, abduction of people for ransom or on grounds of their ethnic identity, religious or political opinions.” The U.N. Commission on Human Rights passed a resolution that year condemning “widespread violations and abuses of human rights and humanitarian law, including the rights to life, liberty and security of person, and freedom of opinion, expression, religious persuasion, association, and movement.”
USCIRF reports that the Taliban movement controls roughly 80 percent of Afghanistan’s territory and is composed largely of Sunni Islam- practicing Pushtun tribesmen who also have been “involved in the persecution and murder of Afghan Shi’a Muslims, most notably during the massacres of thousands of people in the Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998.”
The Taliban made international headlines earlier this year when it ordered a nationwide purge of images insulting to Islam — including the destruction of two towering Buddhas carved during the fifth century in a mountainside about 90 miles west of Kabul. One of the Buddhas measured 175 feet tall and was said to be the world’s tallest statue in which Buddha is standing; the other was 120 feet tall.