The Baptist hospital in Yemen where three U.S. medical missionaries were slain yesterday will remain open, and other missionaries in the country are not expected to be evacuated, officials with the Virginia-based organization that sent them said yesterday.
Yemen is one of six predominantly Muslim countries where missionaries from the Richmond-based International Mission Board, a branch of the Southern Baptist Convention, are active. About two or three dozen missionaries work in the country, either in the hospital or teaching English and clinical classes at a nursing school.
"I don't think our mission strategy will change because of this," said the Rev. Jack Graham, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who called the three missionaries "heroes and martyrs" in the cause of Christ.
Officials with the mission board, which has dispatched almost 5,000 missionaries to more than 153 countries around the globe, echoed Graham's insistence that they would remain.
"We would not choose to end our ministry and service because of risk to personnel. We're committed to serve," Jerry Rankin, the board's president, said at a news conference in Richmond, hours after receiving word that a suspected Islamic extremist had opened fire in the group's hospital in Jibla.
"We can't let someone with a gun make us afraid to do what God wants us to do," said Wendy Norvelle, a spokeswoman for the board.
The incident was the deadliest for the board in 157 years of operations around the world. Before yesterday, 10 missionaries from the organization had met violent deaths, most recently in 1998 in Colombia.
Because of the risks in countries where religious tensions are high, the board usually does not give many details about where its people work and how they conduct themselves. Yesterday, several officials said their missionaries do not proselytize openly.
Rankin said they are flatly barred from "making overt Christian witness" in most countries that are predominantly Muslim.
"It's very well known in Yemen that the hospital is supported by Baptists," said Bill Bangham, a spokesman for the board. "But what they do as physicians and nurses and pharmacists is a tangible expression of their faith. They don't stand on street corners preaching."
According to reports from Yemen, the suspect said the missionaries had been "preaching Christianity."
No specific threats had been made against the missionaries or the hospital, which provides health care and medicine to 40,000 patients a year, Norvelle said. The government owns the building in which the hospital is housed, and Yemeni soldiers are stationed outside as guards, she said.
Graham said missionaries know they face risks and are advised to be cautious.
"There's no doubt in my mind that when they were asked by someone what their faith was, they shared their faith and built a relation," he said. "They recognize the danger. But I believe the safest place on earth is in the center of God's will."