Uncertainty heightens for 2 U.S. women, other aid workers held in Afghanistan

by Ken Walker & Art Toalston, posted Wednesday, September 12, 2001 (17 years ago)

WACO, Texas (BP)--The pastor of two American women on trial in Afghanistan for allegedly sharing their Christian faith said their position is even more precarious after the attacks on two key U.S. cities Sept. 11.

In addition, the fate of two U.S. women, Dayna Curry, 29, and Heather Mercer, 24, could be affected by the arrests during the previous weekend of 35 more Afghan aid workers. The Compass Direct news service reported the arrests Sept. 12, saying they were suspected of aiding in Christian work.

Jimmy Seibert, senior pastor of Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, has been in contact by e-mail with Curry and Mercer's families. The two workers for a German-based Christian aid organization, Shelter Now, are graduates of Baylor University.

"In light of what's happened, obviously, we're in a real precarious situation now, on whether diplomats and people will be allowed to stay in the country or not," Seibert said. "That's probably in question."

Diplomatic conditions in Afghanistan are directly related to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. Reports in various national news media Sept. 12 said evidence is mounting that terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, who has been living in Afghanistan, was involved in planning the hijackings of the American airplanes that crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Various media made note of the possibility of retaliatory action against Afghanistan. President Bush, in his televised address to the nation Sept. 11, made no direct reference to Afghanistan but stated: "We will make no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them."

The United Nations ordered all of its 80 employees out of Afghanistan Sept. 13, the Associated Press reported, noting also that Curry and Mercer's mothers "prepared to leave as well" but saying nothing of Mercer's father who also had been in the country.

Despite mounting international tensions, Seibert said Curry and Mercer and six other foreigners who went on trial before Afghanistan's Supreme Court in early September were allowed consular access Sept. 11. They also were able to secure an attorney for their defense, he said.

Besides meeting with diplomats, the defendants were allowed to meet with family members Sept. 11. The latter brought them some warmer clothes since the weather is cooling, Seibert said.

Despite widespread press reports that they are accused of preaching Christianity to Muslims, the Antioch pastor noted that no formal charges have been lodged against the defendants.

The eight foreign workers for Shelter Now went on trial before 18 justices of the nation's Supreme Court. They and 16 Afghan citizens affiliated with the ministry were arrested Aug. 3.

However, their first court hearing didn't take place until Saturday, Sept. 8, according to The New York Times. The trial has been continuing daily, but they have only been asked questions on one occasion, the pastor said.

Despite the seriousness of the charges -- which include possible hanging or imprisonment -- Seibert said the group continues to be hopeful the trial will end soon and result in their release.

"They're not there to defend the purpose and mission of who they are and what they're about," Seibert said. "One of the charges was [they] give food, clothing and money to make people Christians, which obviously is not what's happening. They're aid workers who share what their life is all about."

The nondenominational Antioch Community Church, launched by Highland Baptist Church of Waco in 1999, has been maintaining a 24-hour prayer vigil in its sanctuary for nearly six weeks.

With the exception of a few hours, at least one or two people have been praying around the clock, Seibert said. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he said the church issued an "all points bulletin."

"We said, 'Come one, come all,'" the pastor remarked. "So there's been a lot more people here up here today praying."

The church also held a special 90-minute prayer service Tuesday evening. In an earlier statement, Seibert said the most effective thing supporters can do is pray.

"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," he said.

According to a church news release, Shelter Now is a devoted group giving their hearts and efforts to assist Afghan citizens. At one Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan, the ministry is reportedly the main provider of housing, food and water to 70,000 people.

"Dayna and Heather are both women of impeccable character with an incredible heart for the people of Afghanistan," Seibert said. "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."

The Compass Direct report reflects a mounting animosity toward Christianity by the ruling Taliban authorities, with more than 50 Afghans being jailed by the strict Islamist regime since early August, in addition to the eight Shelter Now workers.

The latest arrests involved at least 35 Afghans employed by the International Assistance Mission (IAM), a group recently banned by the Taliban. They were reportedly taken into custody in Kabul, in the nation's capital, when they were picking up their paychecks.

In a separate report from the Associated Press, an expatriate aid worker said she knew of some 15 to 17 Afghan employees of IAM who had been arrested by the Taliban's religious police since the Christian relief group was shut down Aug. 31.

"I do not know the reason for their arrest," she told the AP, "but they were taken into custody during the first week of September and have not been seen since then."

According to Compass Direct, IAM is a private volunteer agency with 117 professionals from 17 countries working in five cities in Afghanistan.

It also employed about 300 Afghans in its projects of health, economic development, education and rehabilitation. Its entire foreign staff was expelled from the nation in early September.

Taliban authorities have accused IAM and another Christian agency, SERVE, of having ties to Shelter Now.

A spokesman for the International Committee of the American Red Cross told Compass Direct that their office had no precise information about the arrests of IAM staffers.

Compass Direct also said the Taliban had not yet confirmed or commented on the reported detentions.

In the Taliban court Sept. 8, The New York Times reported that Mercer reached behind her chair to hold her father's hand during the proceedings.

At one point, Mercer addressed the court, stating, "Your excellency, can you please explain to us the process by which we appoint a lawyer? As far as I know, none of us are familiar with the legal process in Afghanistan, so we therefore don't know how to go about this."

The Times did not report any comments made by Curry to the Afghan Supreme Court.

Mercer, according to a Sept. 10 AP report, hails from the Washington suburb of Vienna, Va., where she was a track team captain and a leader in the Fellowship of Christian athletes.

One of her high school classmates, Tarah Grant, told the AP that Mercer "had very strong beliefs, but it was never something she would push on people. She went out of the way to find people who were quiet and didn't have any friends and made friends with them."

At Baylor, Mercer graduated in 1999 with a major in German.

Curry grew up in the Nashville, Tenn., area, and is a 1993 Baylor social work graduate. Curry's mother, Nancy Cassell, told the AP that her daughter went to Afghanistan to help the country's women, who are not permitted to attend school beyond age 8. "She just really has a heart for the people there who are oppressed," Cassell said of her daughter.


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews. Photo title: HELD IN AFGHANISTAN.

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