On 9/11, American missionary Heather Mercer was 6,700 miles away from New York City, behind bars in a Kabul, Afghanistan, prison awaiting trial. Weeks earlier in August 2001, the Taliban arrested Mercer and her close friend, Dayna Curry.

The two young women were ministering in Kabul through Shelter Now, a housing outreach organization. In one of the most dramatic stories of the 9/11 era, the Taliban put them and other Western missions staff on trial for spreading Christianity in the Muslim-majority nation.

Weeks later as the Taliban regime was under attack, anti-Taliban fighters freed all of them. Mercer and Curry returned to the U.S. and the Bush White House hosted a celebration of their freedom. In 2003, Mercer decided to relocate to Kurdistan, the autonomous area of northern Iraq. In 2008, she founded Global Hope, a U.S.-based ministry to northern Iraqis. Now married to an Iraqi Christian, she and her husband divide their time between a home in Texas and Kurdistan. Timothy C. Morgan, CT deputy managing editor, interviewed Mercer recently about the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and her goals for Global Hope.

The tenth anniversary of 9/11 is coming up. Your mind must go back to that period frequently. Was it worth your effort going to Afghanistan and being jailed?

There is not a day that goes by that I don't think about it. God sent me to prison to set me free. I don't think I realized how much fear I actually had in my life until I had to confront some of my deepest, darkest fears. When I first set out to go to Afghanistan, I knew it might cost me my life to reach Muslims with the love of Jesus. Then I had this opportunity to face that fear of, "What would I do if someone tried to kill me for sharing the gospel?" God made himself known in such a profound way that now, what do I have to fear?

There must have been some very hard times for you after 9/11.

When we came out of that experience, there was this grace cloud that followed us everywhere. Antioch Community Church in Waco [Texas] cared for us, pastored us through. Healing came in telling in the story over and over. Through the telling, I was able to see the good that came out of the bad. Eventually, the good overshadowed the bad. Today, I can look back and feel like I've learned a million times more than anything I ever lost.

Back in 2001, there were Christian nay-sayers out there who said, "You were naïve, and you probably did break the law." Would you do things differently if you were going into Afghanistan today?

In terms of our purpose for being there and sharing the gospel, no, I wouldn't do anything differently. There's no other reason to be in a place like Afghanistan if you can't offer the only source of hope to people who have no hope.

Are you any wiser today than you were 10 years ago?

Maybe wiser in understanding an Islamic worldview, how to approach someone with that worldview with the message of Jesus. We were very aware of the risks, dangers, and challenges. The only way to really understand an Islamic worldview is to live in it. As an American, I took things at face value. Now, 10 years later, having worked in the Islamic world all this time, I understand more when I'm speaking to a Muslim what's really going on.

Do you stay in contact with Dayna Curry and others from Shelter Now?

Dayna and I remain very close. Everyone that was involved in that experience continues to serve Jesus among Muslims, which is just a fabulous testimony.

What is going to happen to the church in Afghanistan?

The saints in that land are my heroes. The church has grown exponentially. Remember, when I moved there, the largest known gathering of Christians was eight people. Today, reports are that there are a thousand. We may never know of an above-ground church. It may be that the church stays underground for a very, very long time. But it's a glorious church.

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Why relocate your ministry to northern Iraq?

Northern Iraq is perhaps one of the most open places right now to proclaim the gospel among Muslims. [Iraqi Kurds] have reached out for political democracy. They've invited Christians to serve, to help build their economy. It's a place thriving with opportunity in the business realm. It's a place of tremendous opportunity for the gospel.

But Americans seem to be saying, "We don't want to think about Iraq at all anymore."

As Westerners, we've become so disillusioned about southern Iraq. The good news is that in the Kurdish region, you have a completely different story. There are terrorist elements. But the Kurdish regional government, leading essentially a country within a country, has maintained excellent security.

It's still the Middle East. We work very hard to understand the climate and keep a pulse on the things that are stirring underneath the surface. It's very different from what people picture. I mean—they're opening Pizza Hut!

What about the future for the church? There are many stories about churches being blown up in Bagdad.

Northern Iraq has become the safe haven for many of these persecuted Christians. My husband's family is a great example. His grandfather and great-grandfather were both pastors in what today is modern Nineveh. In 2007, his family basically fled to the Kurdish region in search of a more stable future.

We meet many of the Iraqi Christians who have been tortured, whose relatives have been kidnapped and held for ransom. The network of churches, which is small but valiant and courageous, reaches out to meet the needs of these internally displaced refugees.

In some cases these Christians want to go to the U.S. or to Canada or to elsewhere. Do you encourage them to stay?

A generation ago there were millions more Christians in the country. In order to see change, you need the change agents to remain in their nation. Certainly, we encourage them to stay. But for many Iraqis that have lived through the war of the south, it feels pretty hopeless. We serve the ones that we can and help empower them to stay and be change agents in their community.

How is Global Hope connecting to Muslims?

Global Hope is involved in reaching Muslims, practically finding ways to meet their felt needs. People are pursuing the cause of freedom like never before. We believe it's directly connected to a desire in people's hearts to be spiritually free. Scripture says it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It provides wonderful in-roads to be able to speak about freedom that can truly only come through Jesus Christ.

Many people who we talk to have had an encounter with God. They've had a dream or a vision of Jesus. Or they've received a film about Jesus. Or maybe somewhere along the way they received a part of Scripture in their language.

What can American Christians do to better understand Muslims?

Muslims are people just like us. They have the same desires, the same ambitions. They want to raise their family to be healthy, happy, and whole. The first point is bringing a human face to Muslims. Many Muslims are god-fearing people. They believe in a monotheistic God. They want to experience the promise of eternal life. But they have been handed a religious system and tradition that does not allow them to know the God we know.

Muslims come to know Christ through an authentic relationship with a follower of Jesus, through reading the Scripture in their language, and through having a personal encounter with Christ—through a dream, or a vision, or through supernatural healing.

Evangelicals in this country can take their experience with Christ and share that with their Muslim neighbors. For the most part, Muslims are very open to that. They love relationship; everything rides on the spirit of hospitality. They love prayer. Engage them on those levels.

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Do you believe that relations between Christians and Muslims are improving?

I don't think we're as far as we need to be. There are 1 billion Muslims around the world and 88 percent of them have never met a follower of Jesus. The church needs to rise up with love and humility, and have a willingness to lay its life down for the Muslim world.

Where should a Christian leader start?

It can feel very intimidating. Start a conversation with a Muslim. Find out what they believe. Talk to them. Understand their life. Ask questions. Try to understand their worldview. Get training. In this country, helping to train the American church to reach Muslim neighbors is an organization called Crescent Project (www.crescentproject.org).

Another step is pray like crazy. Start a prayer ministry at the church praying for the Islamic world. Visit the local imam and ask him for dialogue. I've never once had a Muslim deny prayer in the name of Jesus. I always ask them, "May I pray for you in Jesus' name?" I want them to know who it is I worship. It's not an easy assignment. But it's a worthy one. If God can use a 20-year-old, blonde, blue eyed, single American girl then he can use anybody.

What are the needs of the abused Muslim women Global Hope seeks to address?

The greatest are in education, equal opportunity in the job world, and representation in the political and legal systems of the countries in which they live. Our passion and mission is to proclaim God's love and liberty to these women. They don't have the ability to sustain themselves and their children financially, so they remain in these situations of abuse because they feel they have no escape.

We had a team of researchers partner with the Kurdish government's General Directorate for Violence Against Women. We conducted 30 interviews of women who had filed abuse cases. They were being threatened by honor killings. They were being put into forced marriages, being beaten by their husbands, fathers, or relatives.

Many of them were victims of sexual abuse and assault. Most of them did not feel that they had a way out. In Kurdistan today, 50 women a month are setting themselves on fire to escape their oppression and abuse [on average based on a government field study].

That's a staggering and sickening number.

It's appalling. The former mayor of our city, a woman, was just promoted to be the general director for this government agency that deals with these cases of abuse. She said, "Global Hope is the first organization that has come to help us with this issue."

The dream is that we'd be able to gather these women that have no place to go into a discipleship community that'd be set up on an aftercare model. We've been exploring taking some of these women who are in these shelters into our homes. This is very high risk. Many of these women are hiding. They are being sought out by their families to be killed.

We're stepping in, so that they can have a brighter future. These women are profoundly touched with the message of Jesus. We want to see these women healed and set free.


Related Elsewhere:

Previous coverage of Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry's hostage situation includes:

Double Jeopardy | Former Taliban hostages Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer talk about the risks they took, the imprisonment they suffered, and their hopes to return to 'the hardest place on Earth.' (July 8, 2002)
From Afghanistan Aid Workers to Hostages of the Taliban | Excerpts from Prisoners of Hope, the book by Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer with Stacy Mattingly. (July 8, 2002)
Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry Go Home to Waco | Church will send short-term mission to Afghanistan in the spring (December 1, 2001)

Other Christianity Today articles on 9/11 include:

The Gospel at Ground Zero | The horrors of 9/11 were not unlike those of Good Friday. (September 9, 2011)
How Leaders Have Changed Since 9/11 | Christian leaders describe how that fateful day shaped how they see the world. (September 7, 2011)
Flames of Love | How a terrorist attack reshaped efforts to reach Muslims. (September 8, 2011)
Believers on the MOVE | A suburban Chicago church ministers to Muslims at home and abroad. (September 8, 2011)