LOUISVILLE -- The war in the Persian Gulf threatens the future of Christian missionary work in the region for years to come, according to U.S. religious leaders who work in their churches' foreign mission units.
"Things are not going to be the same," said Erich Bridges, news editor for the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Missionary work will be harmed "for a half a century, anyway," said William H. Hopper, associate director of the Global Missions Ministry Unit of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which has its headquarters here.
Several missionaries and church workers already have fled areas of possible bombing or conflict. Others, fearing a backlash by Muslims angry at the U.S.-led attacks on an Islamic nation, have pulled out of countries neighboring Iraq, according to mission personnel.
"Even if the war ends tomorrow," said Bridges, "the reaction of many Muslims toward Americans/Christians is all mixed up and their perspective is going to be bitter, probably for years to come."
Missionary work in the Middle East was difficult at best before the war, said the Rev. William Hancock, a Baptist pastor here and chairman of the Foreign Mission Board.
Foreigners are suspect in Islamic nations and open proselytizing generally banned, he explained. Evangelization is often done indirectly, by providing needed medical, agricultural and educational assistance.
Middle Easterners often hold missionaries responsible for the actions of their Western governments, said Mary Sue Robinson, Africa-area executive of the United Methodist General Board of Global Ministries in New York.
Church workers have been scared by the violence of angry Muslims in Algeria and Bangladesh.
The day after allied bombing of Baghdad and other Iraqi targets began, a mob attacked a Protestant church in Algiers, Robinson said. The intruders broke several windows, but they were stopped by police before they could batter down the door. Two Methodist missionaries living there were unharmed, she said.
A Kentucky missionary couple saw their home in Dhaka, Bangladesh, surrounded by an angry mob a few days after war broke out. Anti-U.S. sentiment "very definitely" makes life more difficult, said Jim McKinley, in a phone interview. He and his wife, Betty, who have been working in Bangladesh for 33 years, "limit their activities" for fear of running into "pro-Saddam" marches, he said.
"We ultimately say to the missionaries, 'Use your best judgment and stay as long as you think it's appropriate,' " said Don Kammerdiener, chief vice president of the Richmond-based Baptist Foreign Mission Board.
Almost 50 Southern Baptist workers left their posts in Muslim and other Middle Eastern countries before the war erupted, he said.
Baptist missionaries Marsha and David Smith left Israel for Larnaca, Cyprus, where several Baptist missionary families have taken refuge. The Smiths were not personally threatened with violence, and they struggled with the decision to leave -- "maybe the hardest in our ministry," Marsha Smith said in a phone interview from Cyprus.
They finally opted to flee Tel Aviv with their two small children because of danger from terrorism or Iraqi attacks. They had worked for eight years with Messianic Jews, Hebrew Christians who acknowledge Jesus as the Jewish Messiah. The Smiths want to return when hostilities cease, but they may not be welcome.
Members of their congregation told the Smiths "that we were abandoning them at a time when they needed us and a time when we needed to show them support," Marsha Smith said.
Other mainline Protestant denominations have cut back their evangelical missions to the region in the last 40 years. The Presbyterians have 13 missionaries in Egypt and 25 in Pakistan, Hopper said.
Southern Baptists on the other hand make traditional missionary work a priority. They still have about 100 missionaries assigned to Muslim-dominated countries in the region and elsewhere. All missionaries have cleared out of Kuwait, Jordan, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip in Israel, Bridges said. Church workers remain in Morocco, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and other parts of Israel.
Sooner or later, agree missionary executives, the U.S. missionaries will return to abandoned posts.
"Missions is a risky business," Kammerdiener said. "It always is."