Americans Freed in Afghanistan Ask Prayer For Philippine Hostages

Monday, March 10, 2003

by Deann Alford

WACO, Texas (Compass) -- Imprisoned Christian aid workers Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry were freed from Afghanistan's Taliban as the country fell, city by city, to opposition forces. But a homecoming worship service showed they haven't forgotten believers still in captivity.

Crediting their release to worldwide prayer, Mercer and Curry are using their new celebrity status to raise prayer support for New Tribes Mission (NTM) workers Martin and Gracia Burnham currently being held hostage in the southern Philippines.

Curry told a crowd of 4,000 at Baylor University in Waco on December 8 that the Burnhams were celebrating their anniversary with an overnight stay in May at Dos Palmas island resort when Islamic Abu Sayyaf rebels attacked. The guerrillas took the Burnhams and 18 others hostage.

The rebels have been linked to the terrorist network of Osama bin Laden. Afghanistan's Taliban government, which in August arrested Mercer, Curry and six other foreign workers with the German-based relief agency Shelter Now, harbored bin Laden for years before its collapse in early December. The eight Christians were freed November 15.

"They need a miracle, just like we got one," Curry told the Baylor gathering. "I really want to see the same thing happen for them." Curry then led in prayer for the Burnhams and gave time during the service for the audience to raise their own prayers for them.

Curry and Mercer also brought up the Burnhams' plight at a press conference the same morning at their home church, Antioch Community Church, and during a 700 Club appearance. Martin Burnham's parents and sister have also appeared on the television show to raise awareness of the couple's plight.

"We were encouraged to see [Mercer and Curry] praying for them on the 700 Club," NTM spokesman Scott Ross told Compass. "It's been neat to see a different organization having gone through a similar event supporting our people."

Meanwhile in the Philippines, hostages whom the guerrillas have freed say that the Burnhams are constantly on the run with their captors on Basilan island. Abu Sayyaf uses kidnapping to raise funds to further the group's aim of setting up an Islamic republic on a Philippine island. Rebel leader Abu Sabaya has handcuffed himself to Martin Burnham to hinder his escape or a military rescue. Other hostages except for the Burnhams and Filipina nurse Deborah Yap have been either killed or freed with ransom.

Ross said that a film shot of the couple by a Filipino journalist reveals that the Burnhams are in a dire situation and won't live much longer under the harsh conditions of little food or shelter from the elements. They looked thin and frail on the video. Gracia Burnham confirmed to the journalist that she cries a lot because she misses her children.

The problem with going in after them, Ross said, is that military commando rescue attempts result in death for the hostage about 80 percent of the time. NTM lost five missionaries in Colombia in the 1990s during failed military rescue attempts. The Philippine government has ruled out any negotiation with the guerrillas.

Ross said Martin Burnham's parents have met with U.S. government officials in Washington, D.C., to garner more support for the couple's case. Hopes that the guerrillas would release them as a Ramadan goodwill gesture were dashed when the Islamic month of fasting ended with the Burnhams still in captivity. A Filipino general promised they would be free by December 16, but that date also passed uneventfully.

NTM remains hopeful for resolution. "Our guy [in the Philippines] still says something is happening and still could happen," Ross said.

But Ross is concerned about breeches in the Philippine military that have allowed the rebels to escape several times, despite being surrounded. Soon after the guerrillas snatched 20 hostages from the Dos Palmas resort and took them to a hospital, the Philippine military claimed to have the building surrounded. Then, mysteriously, the rebels managed to escape with their hostages. Now the guerrillas and remaining hostages are on the tiny island of Basilan and 5,000 Philippine soldiers are in pursuit of the small rebel group.

"We have questions why a reporter can get in there if the government says they've got them cordoned off," Ross said. "How can they have them surrounded, yet packages can get in? Why can all of these things happen? We're going to Washington to see if we can get some answers."

An NTM-led international day of prayer for the situation was held on December 19.