WASHINGTON - Two young American aid workers who stood accused of preaching Christianity in Afghanistan and were held captive by the Taliban for three months came to the White House yesterday and enjoyed a hearty welcome home from a fellow Texan, President Bush.
Bush said the two, Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, "had a calling to serve the poorest of the poor, and Afghanistan is where their calling took them." He described their ordeal, and its happy conclusion, as "a story of joy and hope" and added, "It is a joyous day to welcome two good souls to the Rose Garden."
The women are both graduates of Baylor University and belong to Antioch Community Church in Waco, the largest city near Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
The president said their rescue should be taken as evidence that the U.S. military is "committed to achieving certain objectives." The release of humanitarian workers, Bush noted, was among the list of demands he had issued to the Taliban regime in September.
Mercer and Curry were arrested in August, along with six foreign colleagues, accused of violating a Taliban law that bars spreading Christianity to Muslims. The eight aid workers were rescued from Afghanistan by U.S. Special Forces on Nov. 15.
The two women arrived in Washington on Sunday, after spending time in Pakistan and Europe to recover from their ordeal and to be debriefed by military personnel. Upon leaving the White House, Mercer and Curry began a search for an agent to manage their numerous interview requests.
"Some people offered to buy us some clothes for some of our news interviews," Curry told reporters. "Which is such a blessing - because we lost everything that we had."
Officials at Antioch, which at any one time supports several dozen of its members in missionary work worldwide, said they hoped to throw a welcome home bash for the women Dec. 7-8.
Both women have said they want to resume their work in Afghanistan soon - "now that it's free and there is more openness to work with the women and children there than ever before," Curry said.
Mercer and Curry, who were in Afghanistan as members of a German-based private aid organization, contended that the Taliban had fabricated most of the charges against them. They have acknowledged distributing literature about Jesus to at least one Afghan family, after family members had asked questions about Christianity.
After their arrest, they said that they did not believe they had violated the Taliban's strict Islamic code because Jesus is also regarded by Muslims as a prophet.
Asked yesterday if they would refrain from talking about religion if they returned to Afghanistan, Mercer said: "I don't imagine, when we have a chance to go back, that we would change who we are."
Praising the women yesterday, Bush said that Mercer and Curry "decided to go to help people who needed help." Since the beginning of the military campaign in Afghanistan, the president has stressed that Afghan civilians are not the enemy and that Americans have long supported humanitarian relief in that nation.
The president, who has been highlighting his own faith at various events and in interviews in recent days, suggested that the women's religious devotion had probably contributed to their survival.
"Heather and Dayna's faith in God sustained them," Bush said. "Their faith was a source of hope that kept them from being discouraged. I talked to them right after their release, their freedom, and I sensed no bitterness in their voice, no fatigue, just joy. It was an uplifting experience for me to talk to these courageous souls."
After meeting privately with the president, Mercer said she was honored to have "such a man of God" as president.
Her remarks came as Bush has been stressing the importance of faith for many Americans. At a soup kitchen in Washington last week, he urged Congress to reach a compromise on his contentious proposal to make federal funding available to church-based and other religious charities that provide social services.
"If faith is the integral part of a program being successful, the government ought to say hallelujah," Bush said. "We ought to say we welcome the good work of faith in our society. We ought not to fear it; we ought to welcome it and encourage it."
In an interview with Newsweek last week, the president said that prayer has meant "a heck of a lot" to him since the terrorist attacks Sept. 11.
"I've got a faith that allows me to be comforted by prayer and my own prayers and the prayers of others," he said. "I've never been afraid for my life. I've never been afraid for my family's life. I've never been afraid to make decisions."
Bush added that his "attitude about threats" is "if it's the Lord's will."
"That's what I believe," he said.