Christian Missionaries Battle For Hearts and Minds in Iraq
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 16, 2004; Page A24
There's no sign on the rickety white storefront in central Baghdad, but for Iraqis who live nearby it is already a familiar landmark. Word spread quickly that those who enter the 1,500-square-foot expanse full of clothes and toiletries donated from overseas can expect to find bargains -- as well as answers to their questions about faith from the Christian staffers manning the counters.
"We want to be respectful to the local religion," said the Rev. Sekyu Chang, 45, of Light Global Mission Church in Vienna, who helped set up the charity thrift store. "There is nothing outwardly Christian about the shop, but most of the workers are Christian. They are going to share their personal faith when there are occasions."
With a population estimated to be more than 95 percent Muslim and outbreaks of violence in the name of Islam occurring on an almost daily basis, Iraq is not a place where Christian missionaries can openly evangelize on street corners, hold community prayer meetings or hand out stacks of Bibles. Many say they entered the country as businessmen or aid workers, roles that let them establish relationships with Iraqis about something other than religion.
Over the past year, Christian aid groups have played a significant, if unofficial, role in the reconstruction, helping with various projects: repairing water purification facilities, building a book-bag factory to create employment and holding classes to teach people English. And some have drawn criticism that they endanger the lives of secular aid workers and the military because insurgents may associate Christianity with Western domination, or because they disguise their intentions.
Even as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and large numbers of contractors have pulled out of Iraq due to escalating violence, many Christian groups have chosen to remain.
Some call it bravery, others naiveté. More than a few of the missionaries say their willingness to stay the course is about faith. Volunteer Doug Wells, who went to Iraq this winter, for example, told a Christian newsletter that God led him out of some "sticky situations" that showed "us His faithfulness."
In sermons at mosques and in proclamations in newspapers, many Islamic leaders say Iraqis should welcome the assistance of the Christian aid groups. At the same time they have called for Christians to be banned from proselytizing in Iraq -- as they are in many other Middle Eastern countries. They say they remain suspicious that some aid workers have other motives, both religious and political.
"There is no objection to the work of Christian organizations if they are not backed up by the West. There is a condition to their work here, which is to bring aid to Iraqis and help them financially only if they are not politically supported by U.S., Britain or Israel," said Fuad Turfi, a spokesman for Moqtada Sadr, the 30-year-old Shiite Muslim cleric who in recent weeks has unleashed a violent uprising against the U.S. occupation.
As June 30, the planned date of the turnover of limited authority to Iraqis, draws closer, some missionaries worry that they will be kicked out of the country by more-conservative Islamic leaders.
Until recently, Christian groups in Iraq have operated in relative anonymity. But as shootings and kidnappings of foreigners have multiplied in recent weeks, their presence has become a source of tension in efforts to stabilize the country. Politically, the work of missionaries has been difficult to explain, with insurgents trying to characterize the violence as part of a holy war between Muslims and foreign Christians and U.S. authorities asserting it has nothing to do with religion. Practically, the occupation has had to scramble to rescue missionaries who have been attacked.
In February, four American pastors were traveling in a taxi near the capital when gunmen opened fire, killing one of them. In March, five Southern Baptist missionaries were ambushed in the north; four died and the other was seriously wounded. And in April, eight South Korean ministers who had just entered Iraq from Jordan were kidnapped. Although they were released unharmed, their abduction prompted the Korean government to evacuate all but a few of their compatriots.
The Rev. David Davis, 53, of Grace Bible Baptist Church in Vernon, Conn., was among the four pastors ambushed in February on the road from Babylon to Baghdad. A friend died in the seat in front of him, and he was shot in the left shoulder. Still, Davis, who was in Iraq to open a new church, believes that most Muslim Iraqis harbor no hostilities toward foreign Christians. He stayed on after the attack, performing a baptism a few days later. And though home now, he said he is eager to return.
"I believe Christianity is the one true way. I am willing to [preach] the gospel anywhere I can," Davis said.
Saddam Hussein's Iraq was largely a secular state, and while Christians were allowed to worship freely, there were only a handful of churches. When the war ended, however, the country was flooded with foreign missionaries, whom some estimate to number in the thousands.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
An Iraqi asks Hal Newell about a food program. Some accuse Christians of using aid as a currency to buy converts.
(Courtesy Of Hal Newell)