Christian Missionaries Battle For Hearts and Minds in Iraq
They bought houses and hoisted crosses on the facades, opening up what is estimated to be eight to a dozen new churches. Others set up projects to help rebuild Iraq. In the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Christian aid workers started a soccer team. In the northern city of Mosul, they built bathrooms in schools. All around Iraq, they gave out food boxes.
Chang traveled to Baghdad last June with several others from his Northern Virginia church, which is affiliated with the Richmond-based Southern Baptist Convention. The goal, as he put it, was "to share the gospel with Iraqi people."
When he arrived, however, Chang concluded his mission should be more humanitarian than religious. After speaking with Iraqis, he saw how closely people associated colonialism with missionaries, and he learned how angry some people were about comments Christian leaders in the United States had made about Islam and violence. Chang didn't want to appear to insult his new friends by aggressively proselytizing.
So he joined representatives from about a dozen Korean churches and aid organizations from all over the world, raised $300,000, and decided to use the money to open a store they called the Oasis of Mercy. It would be stocked with donated goods, and it would offer basic items at rock-bottom prices in the name of helping poor Iraqis.
Officially, the thrift store would be non-religious. There would be no pictures of Jesus on the walls, no evangelical pamphlets. But Chang knew many of those who had volunteered to help with the venture were involved only because they were interested in speaking about Christianity with Iraqis. The workers would be able to share their stories, but in a discreet way.
After months of preparations, the store hopes to hold its grand opening in a few weeks.
Mark Kelly, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, which has sent numerous representatives to Iraq, said that while Christian aid workers have tried to keep a low profile, they have been honest about who funded the programs. When they distributed food, for instance, they made sure to get the support of local mosques' leaders.
They also made sure recipients were aware it came from "Christians in America."
"While there may be some who predict that that's going to cause a problem, in the real world people who are hungry are grateful that other people are generous enough to send food. All our projects are done as relief efforts and not evangelistic projects," Kelly said.
As Hal Newell, from Calvary Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., went door to door in Baghdad in late October handing out coupons for food baskets, he recalled recently, he always introduced himself this way: "Hi, I'm Hal and I'm from America. I represent the Baptist Church."
Newell, 56, the owner of an engraving company, said most everyone was curious and would invite him in for tea. Many told him about their suffering under Saddam Hussein, and afterward he would ask, without mentioning to which god, whether he could say a prayer for them.
He ran into possible trouble only once, he said, when he was helping distribute the food in a mosque, and restless crowds began to gather at the gates. One of his five co-workers worried there would be riots. So the aid workers began to belt out "Amazing Grace" and ran for their car. Their guard shot a few rounds from his AK-47 into the air.
Newell believes the Iraqis knew he was singing a Christian song, but didn't find it disrespectful because the song expressed reverence toward the "Lord Jesus Christ or whoever god you serve, whether it's Allah or whoever."
The capture of the South Korean ministers became a flashpoint for the debate over the role of Christian aid workers in postwar Iraq.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company