In the converted grocery store in Waco, Tex., where they worship, and in the nation at large, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry are heroes.
"Jesus has heard the prayers!" chanted congregants last Sunday at the evangelical Antioch Community Church. "Thank you, Jesus!" They were celebrating the release of the women and six co-workers from an Afghan jail where they had been held for 104 days.
The worshippers swayed to the music of a six-piece rock band set up on a stage that serves as an altar at the church, which still has an arch on its roof from the supermarket name it used to carry.
The U.S. media, and George W. Bush, the President, also praised the eight aid workers for their courage and their commitment to religious freedom under the Taliban regime. "They realize there is a good and gracious God. Their spirits were high and they love America," Mr. Bush said last week, after speaking with Ms. Curry and Ms. Mercer by telephone.
Among aid workers in Pakistan and Afghanistan, however, relief has been mixed with a sobering realization of the impact of their imprisonment on the humanitarian community at large. The incident has revived the longstanding debate in the aid community about proselytizing in Muslim countries and tying humanitarian assistance to religion, especially when the lives of any converts could be in grave danger.
Whether the aid workers had in fact been evangelizing has been a sensitive question for family members and diplomats. The workers, after all, entered Afghanistan on visas issued to them as aid workers, not as missionaries.
Now they are free, Ms. Curry, 30, and Ms. Mercer, 24, have acknowledged they were partly guilty of the "crimes" they were accused of. According to a press release from an Antioch church pastor, they did not deny their love for Jesus, nor their desire for "others to know Him."
At a press conference in Islamabad days after her release, Ms. Curry, looking radiant and well-rested, her hair carefully coiffed, elaborated: "I did make a copy of a book with stories about Jesus in English and Farsi and gave it to a friend who had asked for it. "We also showed a film about Jesus to some people. In Islamic countries, the issue of faith is a top priority. They shared their religious beliefs with us and also asked us about our own religion. That was our defence."
The road from Waco to Kabul is not as long nor as complicated as it may seem. The Taliban's belief that God's word is above man's law, that it is noble to die for your religion, is close to the evangelical Christian belief that the law of Christ is the ultimate word, and that Christians are compelled to bear witness to their faith, even in hostile environments.
However, while some Muslims are prepared to engage in jihad, or a "holy struggle" for their religion, evangelical Christians do not advocate taking up the cross and sword. They are willing to die as martyrs, peacefully spreading the word.
Ms. Curry and Ms. Mercer met at Antioch, a charismatic, non-denominational congregation strongly committed to international evangelism. Many of the church's 1,300 members are young married couples and students from Baylor University, a Baptist institution where Ms. Curry and Ms. Mercer studied. The church believes that "each person is called to be an ambassador for Christ" and interprets the Bible as promising eternal life only to Christians. It also teaches abstention from alcohol, baptism by immersion and opposition to abortion.
In 1999, Ms. Curry quit her job as a social worker with the Waco Independent School District and went to Afghanistan. Initially, she lived with a family she knew through church and studied culture and languages.
After a six-week visit home, she went back to Afghanistan last March and rented a whitewashed cement home with Ms. Mercer. They began working for Shelter Now International, a German-based group that does humanitarian work in Afghanistan.
Several years ago, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) stopped working with Shelter Now, which receives much of its funding from fundamentalist Christian organizations, because of a "difference in philosophy." A spokesperson, however, is quick to credit the group for its aid efforts, which include assisting people in the north to re-build homes destroyed by an earthquake.
Ms. Curry worked with street boys in Kabul and taught them how to make stationery to sell.
On Aug. 3, she and Ms. Mercer were arrested, after they visited the home of an Afghan family and showed them the "Jesus Video," based on the Gospel of Luke. The four Germans and two Australians working for Shelter Now were arrested two days later following a Taliban raid of the organization's office in which Christian material, including Bibles translated into Afghan languages, video and audio tapes about the life of Jesus and a book titled Sharing Your Faith with a Muslim, were confiscated.
The eight aid workers were held in a two-storey jail in Kabul. They passed the time singing, praying and playing badminton with flyswatters and a wad of paper. When nightly U.S. raids began last month, they cowered under blankets with flashlights, terrified the bombs would hit them. Their faith helped steel them for death.
Though their activities in Afghanistan may appear naive, they had been fully briefed about the dangers. They chose to go, saying: "If we don't care for the widows and orphans, then who will?"
After they were jailed, other groups came under greater scrutiny, as the Taliban began to question the neutrality of even long-established outfits.
International Assistance Mission (IAM), a Christian-funded group, was expelled after a quarter-century in the country overseeing eye clinics and community development projects. "The incident precipitated a harder look at other groups doing very good work in Afghanistan, including some Christian groups that do not proselytize. Such was the case with IAM," said a UN spokesperson.
Dave Toycen, president of World Vision Canada, said that groups choosing to evangelize in societies where they have been asked not to, must realize their actions affect other aid groups. "There is heightened tension in other Muslim countries where aid groups are. Our expatriate staff have been hassled more, seen as symbols of the Western, Christian world," he said.
An even more pressing concern was the danger to the Afghans working with Shelter Now. The Taliban's Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice arrested 16 Afghans suspected of becoming Christians. They were treated more harshly than the foreigners. When Kabul fell to the Northern Alliance last week, the 16 were freed. They would certainly have faced the guillotine, if the Taliban had held on to power.
"We were really worried the Afghans would be hanged," said an aid worker in Pakistan. "We wage a battle over separating aid from politics and religion. You should separate your values from your humanitarian role."
The consequences in any Muslim country for converts from Islam could include death. The Taliban consider teaching any religion except Islam a crime punishable by death -- although scholars say this is not a clear legal tenet in Islam.
Padideh Ala'i, associate law professor at American University's Washington College of Law, says Islam recognizes Jesus Christ as a Prophet and does not forbid discussion of Christianity. "The problem would not be for those trying to convert people, but for those converting from Islam to Christianity," she said. "But if you're trying to help people, you wouldn't want to place them in more danger."
Todd Lake, Baylor University's dean of university ministries, agrees that endangering the lives of Muslims who have not yet committed to Christ is not appropriate.
"But if the 16 Afghans were already Christians, they would not view their suffering as a reason to turn their back on Christ," he says.
Mr. Toycen, with World Vision, which recently began relief work in Afghanistan, says it is up to each aid group to decide its mission. His organization receives funds from churches, as well as from government and business, and chooses not to proclaim the Gospel, instead focusing on aid delivery.
"Those of us from a faith-based perspective must be sensitive not to use foreign aid as a manipulation to enforce hungry people to embrace our view of life, or profession of faith," says Mr. Toycen.
Ms. Curry and Ms. Mercer are in Europe, undergoing counselling, and will return to the U.S. after Thanksgiving.
Once they have had their fill of Tex-Mex chicken quesadillas and homecoming reunions, however, they plan to go back to Afghanistan and resume spreading the word of Christ, and helping the orphans and widows.