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 naivete. 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.
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.
After foreign service representatives in Seoul, Amman and Baghdad begged them not to come, they still entered what was essentially a war zone. They told their captors they were doctors and nurses on a humanitarian mission, even demonstrating a therapeutic sports massage on the insurgents. In reality, they were in Iraq for the opening of a missionary school.
Carlos Cardoza-Orlandi, associate professor of world Christianity at the Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, said some missionaries compound the tensions in Iraq because they enter with a sense of "victory and triumph."
"They come with here's an opportunity for Christianity to grow and because the U.S. is the occupier and the U.S. is a Christian country. That's pure ignorance," Orlandi said.
"The word 'missionary' carries with it a lot of baggage. It's tainted with notions of Western hegemony and the seeming need to establish political, economic and religious domination," said Jonathan Bonk, editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which publishes scholarly articles on the topic.
Salah Aboud, who owns a grocery store in Baghdad and is Muslim, accuses Christian groups of offering help in an attempt to buy people's religion.
"They are not humanitarian aid workers. They came here for business. They are trying to gain people using money so that they'll win them to their side," said Aboud, 49.
Other Iraqis, however, have accepted the assistance with gratitude and associate the presence of Christian missionaries with democracy and freedom of choice.
Zainab Badran, 36, a pharmacist, said one missionary gave him a Bible.
Although he has no intention of converting from Islam to Christianity, he read it out of curiosity and said it was nice to learn about other religions. He believes Christian aid workers should be more open about their aims.
"I can hear their thoughts and this won't harm me," he said. "I can accept them or refuse."
Staff researcher Richard Drezen in New York and special correspondents Omar Fekeiki and Hoda Ahmed Lazim in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.