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Detained workers in limbo amid U.S.-Afghan wrangling

WACO, Texas (BP)–The home church of two Baylor University graduates currently on trial in Afghanistan is praying for a miracle similar to one described in the 12th chapter of Acts.

Associate pastor Kevin Johnson said Antioch Community Church hopes that Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer will be freed in the same manner as the apostle Peter. The first 10 verses of Acts 12 describe Peter’s release from jail after the first-century church constantly prayed for him.

“We’re believing for the same thing to take place from our prayers,” said Johnson, “that the doors would be opened, an angel would surround them and they would be set free.”

Curry, 29, and Mercer, 24, were arrested Aug. 3 by Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban authorities for allegedly sharing their faith, a violation of strict laws maintained by the Islamic militia.

Both were in the nation with Shelter Now, a German-based Christian aid agency that provides food, clothing and housing for refugees. It also offers basic education and health needs for street children.

Six other international workers — four from Germany and two from Australia — and 16 Afghan citizens affiliated with Shelter Now also were arrested. But only the foreign residents are currently being tried.

However, on Sept. 18 The Washington Post reported proceedings have been delayed because the Taliban has refused to grant the aid workers’ defense attorney a visa.

Clouding the situation is U.S. demands that Afghan authorities turn over Osama bin Laden, the alleged mastermind of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

In widely publicized remarks soon after the terrorists struck, President George Bush said the United States would hold responsible the perpetrators and those who harbor them. He latter followed up with a comment that he wanted bin Laden “dead or alive.”

Amid these tensions, a Pakistani delegation has asked for the release of the eight aid workers.

According to a Sept. 18 Associated Press report, the delegation — which visited Afghanistan to press for bin Laden’s extradition to the United States — made the request after visiting the eight in jail. Taliban leaders promised to consider the request, according to an unidentified official quoted by AP.

However, the situation in Afghanistan remains tenuous. A report in Sept. 19’s Washington Post said the Taliban is refusing to turn over bin Laden to avert a U.S. military attack.

Instead, Afghan leader Mohammad Omar shifted responsibility for the decision to a ruling council of senior Islamic clerics, which convened Sept. 19, The Post reported.

A close friend of Heather Mercer’s recently acknowledged her fears that the U.S. aid worker has been forgotten in the aftermath of Sept. 11’s attacks. Anna Askounis said she is afraid Mercer could become a casualty if the United States goes to war against Afghanistan or terrorists hiding there.

“I really feel like I’m losing hope,” Askounis told The Post. “I don’t think it’s because our government doesn’t care, but it has to balance the concern of the life of one against thousands and thousands who have already been murdered. And whatever diplomacy it could have used is no longer there.”

In a report on a Sept. 12 exodus from Afghanistan, the Washington newspaper described the Asian nation as hostile and panic-stricken over the possibility of being hit by a massive U.S. attack. It also told of the Mercer’s parents leaving the country reluctantly on a United Nations flight.

“How difficult would it be for you to leave a daughter?” asked her father, John Mercer.

“I can’t describe it,” said Curry’s mother, Nancy Cassell. “It’s a heartbreak.”

In a news conference Sept. 17 in Islamabad, Pakistan, Mercer said he had pleaded with the Taliban to let him take his daughter’s place in jail. According to an Associated Press report, he said, “It was a very serious offer. I would do it.”

Heather Mercer’s mother, Deborah Oddy, told of writing a farewell letter before they left Afghanistan.

“We could only tell them that we were there and that we were working for them,” she said.

The parents’ departure has left Antioch Community Church largely in the dark.

Danny Mulkey, Antioch’s assistant pastor, has been in Pakistan since Sept. 5 and had been relaying reports about the women to the congregation in Waco, Texas.

But Johnson said the only updates they receive now come from news media reports.

The church called a news conference Sept. 18 to publicize the women’s plight. More than a dozen reporters attended.

“The main object in anything we do is to get more prayer support,” Johnson said. “We want to do anything we can do to rally people at this point.”

The associate pastor said the situation has been a very sobering time for the church, which averages more than 1,000 worshipers each Sunday. Though nondenominational, it was launched by a Southern Baptist church, Highland Baptist, in June 1999.

Both the women’s plight and the thousands of deaths sustained in Sept. 11’s tragedy have emphasized the seriousness of prayer, Johnson said.

“We see a real urgency to live our lives before the Lord and make our lives count,” Johnson said. “And also to believe in God, to believe that he has things in his control.”

Antioch launched a 24-hour prayer vigil after the women’s arrests, with the past week seeing increased turnouts, the pastor said.

At least one person is present in the prayer room throughout the night, and sometimes five or six, while daytime participation occasionally reaches 15, he said.

Johnson said the situation facing the aid workers and the nation has had an impact on him as well.

“It’s strengthened my faith in many ways,” the associate pastor said. “The more I pray, the more I get to know the heart of God. He is a God of great faith for his kingdom to be advanced.

“As I pray and get to know his mind, I’m getting filled with fresh faith. It’s sobering, too. It’s made me realize the necessity of living life before the Lord and making every day count.”

Johnson said both Curry and Mercer played important roles at the Antioch congregation, leading cell groups and overseeing several other cell group leaders. However, Curry left for Afghanistan soon after the church was formed, he said.

A 1993 graduate of Baylor, Curry became active at Highland Baptist in 1991. In addition to the college ministry, later she became active in that church’s single adults ministry.

Curry had a degree in social work and was a social worker with the Waco Independent School District before moving to Afghanistan, according to a church news release.

“Dayna would also be involved in anything related to the poor and needy,” Johnson said. “If there was an opportunity to serve people, she would do it.”

Mercer, a 1999 graduate of Baylor, has been in Afghanistan since last March. She was a leader in the college ministry and was involved in ministry to the poor and needy, Johnson said.

“They worked with street kids, providing food, health care and literacy programs,” Johnson said of the two women’s mission in Afghanistan. “They did a great job. They’re great girls.”
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: DETAINED IN AFGHANISTAN.

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  • Ken Walker