Missionaries Increase Along With Dangers

Times Staff Writer

In two decades as a Baptist missionary in the Middle East, Mike Edens has had a lot of opportunity to worry that he and his family could become a target of anti-American passions and violence.

Yet whenever he wondered whether he should leave his post, he always came to the same conclusion: "It's much wiser and safer to be obedient to God and do his work than to do otherwise."

Edens' attitude helps explain why the number of U.S. evangelical missionaries has increased steadily in the Middle East in recent years, even as a radicalized, anti-American form of Islam has raged across much of the region.

And although the U.S. government has warned that Al Qaeda and groups associated with the terror network are targeting Americans abroad, thousands of missionaries continue to serve in remote, impoverished areas of the Arab world.

Usually unguarded, they present the sort of "soft targets" U.S. intelligence agencies have warned that terrorist groups are seeking out.

Despite the dangers, the growing U.S. evangelical community has decided that the Middle East needs the benefits of Christian teaching more than anywhere else. And the missionaries insist they are staying -- even though their proselytizing can ignite dangerous frictions.

A Vow to Remain

The risks were demonstrated again Monday, when a gunman with a concealed rifle entered a U.S. missionary hospital in Jibla, Yemen, killing three missionaries and seriously injuring a fourth. Even as the Southern Baptist Convention mourned the loss of its members, it vowed to remain in Jibla as long as the Yemeni government allows.

"We're committed to maintaining whatever ministry we can in the country," said Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board.

Though precise numbers are elusive, observers from U.S. churches estimate that the number of American missionaries who live in the Middle East is probably now in the low thousands. Ten years ago, the figure was probably in the high hundreds, they say.

The number includes missionaries from the new wave of evangelical groups as well as from those that have long had a presence in the region, such as the Roman Catholic Church, the American Friends Service Committee and the Mennonite Central Committee.

Periodically, the State Department warns U.S. missionaries that it cannot guarantee their safety in remote and dangerous parts of the Middle East. Those warnings have increased since the Sept. 11 attacks, and at least some missionaries have decided to return to the United States. Most missionary groups have also worked out plans for quickly evacuating their workers from the country.

The most sensitive question missionaries face is how active they will be in trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

Although proselytizing is usually forbidden, most countries in the Middle East are eager to have Western religious groups running hospitals and clinics and working on economic development and education. Some long-established missionary groups in the region have come to terms with this by focusing their work on serving the social needs of the local population and hoping that they might draw Muslims to Christianity more indirectly, through example.

Friction Grows

But other missionaries, including many evangelicals, feel that it is part of their faith as Christians to try to spread the Gospel.

Sometimes, these efforts have led not only to friction with Muslims but with other Christian missionary groups, which fear that such efforts put them and their work in jeopardy. Sometimes there are frictions, too, with indigenous Christian denominations, such as the Orthodox and the Copts.

On Nov. 21, an American missionary, Bonnie Penner Witherall, was killed by a gunman at a prenatal clinic in Sidon, Lebanon, where she worked.

Although the authorities have assumed that the unsolved case was an example of anti-Americanism, the acting Catholic archbishop for the diocese there complained that it was another example of overly aggressive efforts at conversion by evangelicals. He contended that Witherall had sought to teach Christianity to the poor children while giving them food and toys.

Eight evangelical Christian aid workers were arrested by the Taliban government in Afghanistan in 2001 for allegedly distributing Christian literature. Government officials said they should be killed, but they were freed when the U.S. military began its attack on the country.

One of the workers said later that they had shown Afghans a film about Jesus.

Some Islamic groups complain that the missionaries are taking advantage of the Muslims' needs. "They go into poor areas, and they take advantage of their power," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights group in Washington. "They hold a blanket in one hand and a Bible in the other and say you can't get one without the other.... It's the deceit I don't like."

For their part, many evangelical missionaries deny that there's an intention to deceive or take advantage of people of another faith.

Edens, an official of the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, said he worked in the Middle East for 21 years through programs that offered such training as English, computer skills and business education.

This was not an effort at active proselytizing but a way to "give value" to people, he said. These efforts built friendships -- and occasionally led some people to ask questions about Christianity and to adopt the Gospel, Edens said.

Edens, who is 55 and lived abroad with his wife and two daughters, said that although he did not often fear for his life, conflicts did arise.

He said he had been warned by Muslim leaders "not to take unfair advantage of people. And frankly, we didn't want to."

Disputes Over Policy

Once, in a village in Yemen, Edens struggled to stamp out a rumor that an American eye doctor who was part of his group had been urging Muslims to destroy copies of the Koran.

When tensions arose, it was usually over U.S. foreign policy, Edens said.

A Palestinian friend once angrily challenged him over a TV news show that depicted an American group going to great lengths to dislodge a whale from an Alaskan ice floe.

"He said, 'You Americans will spend millions of dollars to free a whale, yet Palestinian children are dying and you don't care about them.' That's the kind of confrontation we usually faced," Edens said.

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Chronology of recent attacks

1. Aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer of Waco, Texas, are rescued in November 2001 after having been held by the Taliban for more than three months in an Afghanistan jail.

2. Martin Burnham is killed during a rescue mission to save him and other hostages held by Abu Sayyaf guerrillas in the Philippines, June 7, 2002.

3. Bonnie Penner Witherall is shot and killed at the Unity Center in Sidon, Lebanon, Nov. 21, 2002.

4. Missionaries Martha Myers, Kathleen Gariety and William Koehn are killed by a gunman disguised as a patient at a Baptist hospital in Yemen, Dec. 29, 2002.

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