- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 1, 2001

The dramatic rescue of eight international relief workers from Afghanistan surely will make it a happier holiday season for the two Americans in their ranks, Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry. Charged with preaching Christianity, they were imprisoned and put on trial. Under radical Islamic law imposed by the Taliban, they might have been executed.

But we shouldn't let joyful homecomings obscure the reason they were seized in the first place: They found it difficult to separate their Christian faith from their sacrificial help to Afghan refugees. This underscores an ironic point that the Muslims who denounce secularization as a Western evil have no patience for religious minorities who cannot, in effect, secularize themselves.

The two young women are volunteers with Shelter Now, a German-based group that provides food, clothing and temporary housing to Afghan refugees arriving from Pakistan. It helps up to 10,000 people a month, and in some refugee camps it's the only charitable organization still active.

The Taliban allowed Shelter Now to operate because its mission is not evangelical. The organization says it provides aid "without discriminating against race or political and religious persuasion." Yet most of the group's staff members and volunteers are Christians who take their faith seriously. Sometimes they encounter people whose needs go deeper than food and safety, who are eager for spiritual nourishment they haven't found in their own faith tradition.

The Shelter Now team met such a family in their relief work. What did they do? They explained that their love for the Afghan people proceeds from their love for Jesus. They gave the family a Bible and a movie about the life of Christ.

That was enough for the Taliban to arrest the aid workers. The war in Afghanistan interrupted what surely would have been a kangaroo court: Since the Taliban seized power in 1996, law has been dictated by a ruling council of radical clerics and local leaders acting under its authority.

Dictatorial authority, of course, is what these rulers are all about. According to State Department reports, the Taliban set up a police force to monitor obedience to religious dress and speech codes. They made prayer mandatory, for one thing; those not praying at appointed times could be beaten on the spot. People have been stopped on the street and quizzed about their knowledge of the Koran.

Afghan girls and women have been special targets. They've been denied access to education, work and medical care. The Taliban "stripped a society in desperate need of trained professionals of half its assets," the State Department said. In a recent national radio address, first lady Laura Bush did not exaggerate when she called "the brutal oppression of women" a central goal of the regime.

There's a lesson in all of this for Americans who shrug off threats, either at home or abroad, to the free exercise of religion. The Taliban leadership reminds us that any attack on religious liberty whether in the name of religion or secularism is an assault on civil liberty. Taliban-held Afghanistan lacks more than just religious freedom. There is no freedom of speech, press, assembly or association, either.

America's Founders wouldn't have been surprised. Madison, the most important influence behind the First Amendment, reckoned the free exercise of religion as non-negotiable for a just society. "The equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights," he wrote.

Curtail this protection, Madison warned, and government "may sweep away all our fundamental rights." That partly explains why the First Amendment begins with a guarantee of religious freedom, while including protections for free speech, press, assembly and the right to petition the government. Remove the cornerstone of religious liberty, the Framers reasoned, and the structure of political rights collapses.

Liberty collapsed long ago in Afghanistan, and many blame fundamentalist religion. But the real problem isn't religious belief. It's the coercive use of the state to enforce an ideology religious or otherwise that denies basic human rights. Secularists are as skilled in this political sin as any of the faithful.

This season they might want to join their believing citizens in giving thanks that America, the most religious country in the West, has rejected the way of the Taliban not by exalting secularism, but by making room for people of all faiths in its public life.

Joe Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.

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