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 Issue date - April 25, 2003
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Free at last
By Jason Bowen

Eight hostages were freed, Nov. 12, 2001, after three months of imprisonment by the Taliban for spreading Christianity in Afghanistan. They were incarcerated weeks before September 11; as American forces invaded Afghanistan in search of Osama Bin Laden, all they could do was wait while the Taliban moved them from one cell to another.

The group consisted of two Americans, two Australians and four Germans. The Australians were members of ORU Faculty Chaplain Dr. Frank Hultgren's church in Perth, Australia.

According to Hultgren the group of eight was part of a larger group of Christian Aid workers called Shelter Now whose primary goal in Afghanistan is to build shelters and homes for refugees. Diana Thomas, 52, whom Dr. Hultgren has known for 28 years, gave free nursing attention to Afghanistan refugees. Peter Bunch, 54, whom Hultgren has known for 15 - 18 years, helped with the computer work needed for the shelters.

The Set-up
Hultgren explained they were imprisoned because of a Taliban "set-up." The two American girls, who had been in Afghanistan for only four months, were doing door-to-door ministry, going into people's homes and showing them the Jesus film. Under the Taliban rule, it was illegal for the anyone to proselytize. The Taliban had set up a home for them to enter, and when they showed the film, the Taliban had enough evidence to place them under arrest.

"They came into the whole organization; they took the filing cabinets, computers, desks, chairs. They stripped the place, and then they went to the [apartments] and the houses of the missionaries . . . the ones that stayed . . . lost everything," Hultgren said. The eight were left with "the clothes they were in, and they were also allowed to have another set of clothes to change into. The leader of the whole mission, George, was with them also."

During their captivity the prisoners were not allowed to see each other except when given permission. According to Hultgren, the time in prison was "very difficult." The main concern with the prisoners was not necessarily food, but water. "They couldn't bathe, and some of them got dysentery," Hultgren said.

While this was occurring, the hostages relied on prayer and praise. "Because the six ladies were imprisoned together, they decided to have prayer meetings from 8 to 10 in the morning, and from 7 to 9 at night. They would have times of prayer and times of praise, and it was better than church."

The guards did not like this, according to Hultgren, "particularly [at] the mentioning of the name Jesus. When the guards would come in to tell them to stop, they would sing louder, praise longer, and the Lord would give them songs, prayers and prophesies, and it wasn't long before the guards would begin to hum the same tune the prisoners were singing."

Despite the harshness of the Taliban rule, the prisoners were remarkably unharmed. The day they were put in prison they underwent a daylong interrogation, but they were not harmed, and the hostages believed this was the "mercy of God."

Guardian Angel
On the day they were imprisoned, not only did they escape injury, but a member of the Taliban approached the hostages and said, "Don't worry. You're going to be all right. I am going to protect you." This Taliban remained true to his word the entire time they were held in captivity. Hultgren relates that every time a prison transfer took place, this officer assured them of their safety.

As the weeks passed, the American presence in Afghanistan grew. The night of the hostages' rescue, the Christians found themselves in an empty field scattered with craters and debris. They saw and heard two Marine helicopters nearby. The now-free believers burned some of their clothes to attract attention, but the aircrafts passed overhead without stopping.

Finally, after waiting an hour-and-a-half, the hostages noticed that soldiers had surrounded them. The Marines had not landed because they feared the hostages could have been Taliban forces attempting to destroy the helicopters. The former detainees were escorted to the gun ships, and as they boarded the helicopter, Thomas said to one of the Marines, "We have prayed and prayed so much for this." The Marine turned to her and said, "You don't know how much prayer we have put into this also."

Later, when Thomas was interviewed by a psychologist to assess her mental condition, she was asked, "What made you cry the first time?" Thomas looked at her and said, "Cry . . . who cried? I didn't cry. I count it a privilege to be a hostage for Jesus. My being in prison has caused the whole world to come to prayer; what a privilege. This is the most exciting and greatest time of my life!"

Despite their sufferings and a three month imprisonment in Afghanistan, they plan to return to the mission field. Currently, Thomas works at the hospital as a nurse. She has future plans to go back to the Arab-Muslim world, but not necessarily Afghanistan. Bunch plans to return to Afghanistan to minister as soon as it is safe.

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