President welcomes two aid workers released by Taliban, calls story one of hope

Monday, November 26th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ President Bush welcomed home two American aid workers held captive for three months by Afghanistan's Taliban, calling the women's experience ``a story of joy, story of hope.''

Bush met privately in the Oval Office with Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 30, who arrived in the United States Sunday. Vice President Dick Cheney was also on hand to welcome the women and their families to the White House.

The two women had only been trying to help people and ``their faith led them to Afghanistan,'' Bush told reporters in the Rose Garden.

Theirs ``is a wonderful story about prayer, about a faith that can sustain people in good times and in bad times,'' Bush said. ``Their faith was a source of hope that kept them from becoming 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.''

The two women, who worked for a private charity, were arrested Aug. 5 on charges of attempting to convert Muslim Afghans to Christianity. Standing at Bush's side Monday, they credited their release to prayer.

``I'll never be able to thank America and the different Christians around the world who prayed for us,'' said Curry.

``I think if we had a whole lifetime to say thank you we wouldn't do it right,'' said Mercer.

Both women talked of returning to Afghanistan _ especially ``now that it's free and there is more openness to work with the women and children there than ever before,'' as Curry put it.

From the White House, the pair went shopping for an agent and new wardrobes before heading to New York City for the evening.

``Some people offered to buy us some clothes for some of our news interviews, which is such a blessing because we lost everything that we had,'' said Curry.

After their release Nov. 15, they described endless hours inside Taliban prisons and weeks without any contact with the outside world. To pass the tedium, they prayed, sang, exercised, washed their clothes, played cards and even killed flies. The boredom was broken by the thunder of the U.S. bombing raids in and around Kabul that began Oct. 7.

Mercer and Curry have been on a spiritual retreat in Germany since their release. A homecoming celebration is planned for Dec. 7-8 at Antioch Community Church near Waco, Texas, where they attended Baylor University.