In the fall, when a preemptive military strike against Iraq turned into a serious possibility, it appeared that a major religious debate over the morality of war was heating up, pitting evangelicals against mainline Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox Christians.

Several organizations -- including the United Methodist Church, to which President Bush belongs -- wrote letters to the White House urging extreme caution in launching an "unprovoked attack." Richard Land, speaking for the 16 million-member Southern Baptist Convention, countered with a letter supporting the president and assuring him that the Iraqi threat satisfied the conditions of a "just war" that have guided clergy for 1,600 years.

Then the discussion went flat -- or, more accurately, one-sided -- as the religious voices for peace multiplied and strengthened while the pro-Bush religious forces went mum. Since Land's letter, also signed by Charles Colson and Bill Bright, few prominent evangelicals have spoken out for the war -- or against it.

Such reticence suggests that most evangelical leaders, who strongly supported the Persian Gulf War a decade ago, are ambivalent about the prospect of war with Iraq, according to several evangelical theologians and scholars.

They said some evangelical leaders question whether Saddam Hussein's regime poses the immediate threat to American security the Bush administration claims. And they said other leaders are fearful for the safety of hundreds of thousands of Christians in Iraq and thousands of missionaries working in Muslim-led countries around the world.

Other observers say the silence of evangelicals does not necessarily mean that they do not hold strong positions on the president's policy. According to this view, evangelical leaders who favor military action are afraid that public statements to that effect will further inflame anti-American sentiment throughout the Muslim world -- while those against a war worry that they will be labeled as "liberals" because their arguments closely follow Protestant and Catholic leaders who oppose a U.S. attack.

Evangelicals for and against the war agree that a military strike probably would lead to the expulsion or death of missionaries in various countries. Last month, three Baptist hospital workers were killed in Yemen, and some experts have attributed violence in Pakistan last fall to derogatory remarks about Islam made by the Revs. Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell and other evangelicals.

"Missionaries will die. Christians will die," said Ted Haggard, founder and senior pastor of the 8,700-member New Life Church in Colorado Springs and president of the World Prayer Team and World Prayer Center there. Haggard said he believes that regime change in Iraq is necessary but that the United States should pursue more peaceful means of achieving that goal.

Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, said there is no better example of evangelicals' ambivalence about war in Iraq than his own organization's unwillingness to take a public stand. Cizik drafted a statement that would have endorsed the Bush administration policy of overthrowing the "evil" Hussein regime if the United States made a "good faith effort" to obtain U.N. approval and exhaust alternatives.

The board of the association, which represents 51 denominations and 10 million people, rejected the statement, Cizik said.

John Stackhouse, professor of theology and culture at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., said he has been perplexed by the lack of direction from evangelical leaders on the war issue. Their public views might help in guiding the thinking of their membership groups and of the country at large, Stackhouse said.

"It's an opportunity for evangelical leaders to really lead," he said. "Some of us would like to have someone talk us out of" the belief that war is necessary.

Paul McKaughn, executive director of the association's Evangelical Fellowship of Mission Agencies in Atlanta, said he hears "a lot of apprehension" from evangelical members about the way the situation is developing. They "want to be supportive" of Bush but are not sure the press toward military action is necessary, said McKaughn, whose agency represents groups that have 20,000 career missionaries worldwide.

One leader who has spoken his mind is Richard Mouw, president of the country's largest evangelical seminary, Fuller Theological in Pasadena, Calif.

Mouw said evangelicals should question, as he does, whether three major conditions of just war have been met: that military action is the last resort, that proper authorization has been given (in this case, in the United Nations) and that a military strike will ultimately do more good than harm.

Mouw said he also worries that Christians who support the war have not "thought about their obligation to the Christian community in Iraq. Have they taken that into account?"

Unlike Muslim-led governments in the Middle East that prohibit worship by other faiths, Hussein's secular regime has allowed more than 600,000 Christians -- Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant -- to live and worship in a country of 22 million people.

"Far from repressing Christianity, the government of Iraq supports a multiplicity of religious expression, seeing this as a way of providing balance," Marilyn Borst, executive director of Evangelicals for Middle East Understanding, told Christianity Today magazine.

A member of the mainline Presbyterian Church (USA), Borst on several occasions has visited the five Presbyterian congregations in Iraq founded in the 19th century. In an interview, Borst said that she maintains daily contact with members of those churches and that many of them are afraid of retaliatory action by fundamentalist Muslims if the United States attacks Iraq.

"It's not the whole Muslim community [they fear] but an extreme element looking to point fingers," she said. As in many Middle Eastern countries, the words "American" and "Christian" are synonymous in Iraq, she said. Those angry with the United States might say, "We can't do anything about the planes up there, but here sit people who are linked to Americans."

Haggard, the senior pastor at New Life Church, called a regime change in Iraq inevitable and said Saddam Hussein is "more illogical and random than Hitler was." If it takes military action to get rid of the dictator, so be it, Haggard said. But he prefers what he believes to be a more powerful weapon: prayer.

A month ago, Haggard's World Prayer Team began sending an e-mail around the world urging Christians to pray that Hussein would choose to go into exile, that the United States would allow his departure and that the United Nations would facilitate it.

On Sunday, Bush administration officials said they would welcome exile for Hussein and might allow him to escape war crimes prosecution under those circumstances. And Arab leaders began urging Hussein to accept the offer.

Was there a direct correlation with the World Prayer Team's effort? "No doubt about it," Haggard said. "When people pray for benevolent ideas, good things happen."

Iraqi Christian children in Baghdad light candles for Christmas Eve Mass. More than 600,000 Christians live in Iraq, which is a secular state.Richard Mouw of Fuller Theological Seminary asks whether war is the last resort.Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention said an attack on Iraq would qualify as a just war.