Giving hope to persecuted Christians since 1995
Select Page

A prisoner of hope…
Heather Mercer, who was held by the Taliban for three-and-a-half months along with other Christian relief workers in 2001, tells her dramatic story in interview for Front Page Radio

By Dan Wooding, Founder of ASSIST Ministries
ANS (01/06/07) — Heather Mercer went to Afghanistan back in 2001 to help the people of that tragic country and was “rewarded” by being arrested by the Taliban and spending three-and-half-months in prison, not knowing whether or not she would be executed for her “crime” of breaking Muslim law by teaching Christianity.

Mercer and her friend, Dayna Curry — along with four German and two Australian aid workers — were arrested and imprisoned by the Taliban in the fall of 2001.

While in prison, America suffered attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center, and then began its military campaign against Afghanistan and its ruling Taliban government.

Eventually, Mercer and her colleagues were rescued as Kabul fell to Northern Alliance and American forces.

In an interview conducted for my Front Page Radio program in the studios of KWVE 107.9 FM in Southern California last year, I began by asking Heather Mercer how she came to move to Afghanistan.

“I moved there in March of 2001 to be a part of a team of people that love Jesus and love the Afghan people,” she began. “We were there working with an international relief and development agency with the hope of meeting the felt needs of the Afghans during a very difficult time in their history and hoping for opportunities to share with them about the love of Jesus.”

She said that after she arrived in the country, she began studying the local language. “I was in language school at the time we were arrested. We were studying Dari which is the Afghan Dialect of Farsi so we at least had enough to communicate and get by in the culture.”

Heather said that she and Dayna also wore clothing that would fit in with the society there.

“We felt very strongly about adopting the local culture in any place that we’re working so we dressed appropriately for Afghan society,” she said.

“We wore big head coverings, long sleeves, long dress and long pants.
“Still, we stuck out because we were westerners and there weren’t many westerners in the country at the time. We also were forbidden from wearing a berka which would have concealed our identities. The Taliban could see our faces as we just covered our heads so they always knew where we were.”

JESUS film

When asked what led up to their arrest and, if the fact that they had been showing the JESUS Film, had anything to do with it, she replied, “Well, we were doing a lot of work in the humanitarian community; working with widows and orphans, and helping widows to start small business enterprises to generate income for their families. We were also doing a job skill training program for street children and through the relationships that we had with the friends that we lived around we would share our faith.

“We would pray for Afghans in need and occasionally we would show the JESUS Film to a family that was really interested in learning more about the teachings of Christ. And it was because we had shown the JESUS Film and shared with this one particular Afghan Family that we were arrested. We discovered later that the Taliban had actually planted an informant in this family who basically staged the whole conversation with us and when we went to show the film he left the house to go get the religious police.

“We had actually finished our visit and I went outside to get in my taxi to go to our staff meeting when some Taliban, dressed in civilian clothes, approached the taxi and basically took the taxi over and drove me to the place that became our prison for the first seven weeks of our captivity. You know at the time I didn’t know who they were or what they were doing. They didn’t say anything they didn’t speak to me they just forcefully took us to prison.

“Dayna had left a few hours before I did so the whole time I thought she had got away and I was thankful that she wasn’t with me but, when I arrived at this prison, I saw her sitting in another vehicle.”

She then spoke about her friend Dayna Curry.

“She and I were both part of the same church out of Waco Texas — Antioch Community Church,” said Heather. “She is an amazing woman. She and her husband — she’s since married — are expecting their first child and they’re back overseas as well.

“We were both a part of a team from Texas that had a desire to love and serve the Afghan people. So Dayna and I were roommates and really good friends; so we were involved in the work together.”

But back to the arrest, I asked Heather if she realized how serious the situation was for her.

Something big was happening

“Absolutely! I knew that something big was happening, buy I just didn’t know how big at the time. We were held for three-and-a-half months altogether and we were not formally charged until two months into our ordeal. We were put on trial on September eighth before the Afghan Supreme Court. We were asked to appoint a lawyer but the trial was really just a smoke screen; it was the Taliban’s way of communicating to the world that they were not so bad. But there was never any fair trial. They had already decided what they were going do with us before the trial had even started.

“We were charged with trying to convert Muslims in an Islamic state and for distributing literature about the life of Jesus.”

I asked if this was a capital offence and Heather said, “It was. Under Sharia law for an Afghan it was absolutely a capital offense and then for us it could have been. I think the Taliban really thought that what we were doing was forcing conversions in exchange for aid and there wasn’t anything that was farther from the truth. We were there serving with a legitimate organization meeting felt needs and then as we had friendships we shared about the love of Christ.”

Could have been executed

When asked if she felt they could have been executed, she said, “Sure, it was definitely a frightening time. The war on terror had started and that was quite a dramatic time as well the fact that we were in prison as the bombs would fall.

“We learned of the terrorist attack on the US within two days after it happened through one of our Taliban captors. But it really wasn’t until a month later that we heard the full story. But we did know from about the twelfth or thirteenth of September that whatever had happened would be the impetus for a war in Afghanistan; and we knew we would be in the middle of that.”

Heather revealed that she and Dayna were able to have Bibles in prison. “That was really one of the great gifts that God gave us,” she said. “I can’t imagine going through that ordeal without the Word of God. The Taliban had initially confiscated all of our possessions but, for some reason that I still don’t know the answer to, they allowed us to go home on one particular day and take a few things from our home. Each of us grabbed a Bible and they allowed us to keep it because it was in English.”

She then spoke about the prisoners that they encountered.

“We became very close friends with the other female prisoners. There was a men’s prison as well but of course we were just with the women. Most of them were victims of injustice. They had been put there either because they were found working in their home, which was illegal. At that time, women were not allowed to work. Some of them had run away from an arranged marriage which was also illegal while others didn’t wear a head covering or were caught with their hair exposed or their face exposed and were arrested.”

When asked if some of the women wondered why they had come to their country, she said, “Sure, and there were actually many other westerners there besides just us. But I think they were grateful the westerners in the community were their gateway to survival because the western aid was really what was keeping women and children alive during that time. So I’m sure they thought it was a mystery but they were grateful for it.”

I then asked Heather if there were times when she got so desperate about the situation, that she wanted to give up.

Struggle with fear

“You know there were definitely moments that it was really hard to hang on; it was really hard to believe that we could come out alive,” she said. “And I really struggled with fear; all the things you would imagine struggling with being in a situation like that. But you know, for all of us, our great source of hope was our relationship with Christ. We would meet together every morning and every evening and pray and worship together.

“There were six women ultimately and two men who were kept in another facility and those times were our lifeline. These were the times that we could worship and pray together that really gave us hope even in some pretty desperate circumstances.”

She then described the conditions in the prison.

“I guess it was as you would imagine a foreign prison to be — concrete floors,” Heather began. “The first prison we were in; we shared a bathroom which was one hole in the ground basically for forty women. There were all sorts of rodents and bugs and flies, as well as scorpions and cockroaches; the whole deal that liked to come and ‘hang out’ with us, which I didn’t appreciate all that much.

“But all things considered we were fortunate that we had it as good as we did. We were given food so we never starved. It wasn’t good food but we had enough to eat; and we had blankets when it got cold.

“I’ve often said that I feel like God sent me to prison to set me free not, just in a physical sense but in a heart sense. I really discovered during that time that God’s promise of, ‘Lo I am with you always even unto the end of the age’ was true; that aspect of who He is — Immanuel ‘God with us’ — is really true.

“I also discovered that God never leads us into circumstances or situations where he does not promise to be everything that we need and He took care of me. Even when I was afraid even when I didn’t understand even when I wasn’t sure that we’d make it out alive I learned that He is with me and He’s never going leave me. That was is probably the greatest lesson I’ve ever learned in life in relationship to my walk with God.

“And, as far as what I’ve learned about myself, I learned that I’m not in control and it is best if it stays that way. It’s best that God gets to be the driver I get to sit next to Him.”

How freedom came

I then asked Heather to talk about how they were finally freed.

“Well,” she said, “the Northern Alliance was gaining ground and the Taliban were being overthrown throughout the country,” she said. “They were coming closer and closer to Kabul and, on November twelfth, the Northern Alliance broke in to the city and many of the Taliban fled; and some of those Taliban were the ones that had held us in captivity. So, on November twelfth, they loaded us up into vehicles and drove us out of the city with the fleeing Taliban. We headed south towards Kandahar and, basically, were on the run in the middle of the night fleeing those who just invaded.

“On that first night, we spent the night in a steel shipping container and then, on the second evening or second morning I should say, we were put into another prison in another city. The US invaded that city and attacked with air raids and the Taliban fled. What happened was that the Northern Alliance supporters within that city rose up and kicked out the Taliban and then they stated opening up all of the prisons looking for their people because many of them were political prisoners. And, much to their surprise, they found us in this prison and basically we fled. We ran away from the prison, dodging bullets and sand bag forts and abandoned buildings. We were just trying to stay out of the way of the Taliban.

“We ended up in the home of a Northern Alliance commander for the next thirty-six hours. Through the Red Cross we were able to connect with the US military and they said, ‘We have a plan and we’re coming to get you. Be here at this place at this time and we’re coming to get you.’ But the whole plan literally fell apart as we couldn’t get to where they needed us to be. We had to go out in secret in the middle of the night into a city that was still unstable and still had Taliban hiding out. They couldn’t find us the US military couldn’t find us; and they had been on an eighteen hour mission searching the city looking for us.

“We were in an open field but really had no way to signal them. After about two hours in the middle of the night of being on this field we were pretty desperate and one of the German ladies had a purse with her and we began to look in her purse for matches, thinking maybe if we had matches, we could start a fire that would signal the military. But she said she couldn’t find her matches, but we looked one more time and there were matches in her purse. So, with those matches, we were able to start a fire with some of the clothes we were wearing.

“The amazing thing was that this group of special forces that had come to rescue us as, far as we understand, were told to abort the mission eighteen hours into it because it had gotten so dangerous, but there was one pilot on the helicopter that said we’re not leaving without them. He came around one more time; saw the fire and that was how we were rescued.”

When asked how she felt when the helicopter landed, Heather replied, “It was very much like a movie. It was hard to believe after all that time that we were really free that we were really going home.”
She said she hadn’t realized at that time how much publicity there had been in the world’s press about their case.

“We knew that people around the world were praying for us. We knew our church in Texas was praying for us, and we knew our families and people within the government were doing everything they could to help us go free. But we had no idea until we came out just really the overwhelming amount of support that people had offered through prayer.”

Heather then spoke about having to deal with the world’s media.

“Sometimes that was harder than prison,” she smiled. “But God gave grace for that because Dayna and I were never trained in dealing with the media; that was a very new thing for us. Dayna was thirty and I was twenty-four and definitely hadn’t done any TV or radio shows before that. But you know God gave us a lot of grace to know how to handle that. Really it was a wonderful opportunity for us to be able to share a God story with so many people around the world who prayed for us.

Spiritual awakening in Afghanistan

“God obviously used it to change each of our lives in some pretty dramatic ways but He also used it to change a nation as well. And that has no direct bearing on our part in the story. Afghanistan, pre-September eleventh, had only eight known Christians in the country and today there is a spiritual awakening in Afghanistan. There are stories of many Afghans who have heard about the love of Jesus that are coming to follow Him. It’s an incredible breakthrough for the Church in that country. They still struggle and they still are facing tremendous trials and, at times, persecution. But God allowed all of that I believe because He so cared about the Afghan people that He wanted them to have a chance for freedom.”

I then asked Heather Mercer, how people can pray for the people of Afghanistan.

“Well, I think one thing they can pray for is for their government,” she said. “Obviously if you have a strong government, you have a stronger nation. And it’s still a land that is very divided and going through a lot of chaos in all of this transition. So they can pray that God would establish a righteous government; a government that really desires to serve its people and that their leadership is not about power or material gain but it’s about building a stronger country. And then to pray for the Church in that nation. There are believers and they go through a lot for their faith. Please pray that they would be men and women of courage, men and women that really know and experience God’s love and power and men and women who have wisdom in how to share and reach out to others in their country. You can also pray for the foreign community working in that region that the work that they’re doing would be effective, it would be lasting and it would make a difference in the lives of the Afghan people.”

I concluded by asking Heather if she knew what was going to happen to her in Afghanistan if she would have still gone there.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Not a single question. I’ve often said that though it was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life, it was also the greatest experience of my life because I met God there in a way that I never had before and perhaps never have since. To share in the freedom of a nation, to go into prison with a nation that was oppressed and bound by a regime that hurt them and then to be set free with a people who were free it absolutely made history in my life and it was life changing and I wouldn’t have done anything differently.”

Heather Mercer was recently back in Southern California to speak, along with Don Richardson, at the Calvary Chapel Mission’s Conference at Murietta, California. Both also spoke on Saturday, January 6, at a mission’s event at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa and were also my guests the previous day on Pastor’s Perspective on KWVE 107.9 FM.

To read more about their story, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry have written a book called, Prisoners of Hope.