Evangelicals Flock Into Iraq on a Mission of Faith
An American missionary proudly watches as a sea of Iraqi arms rise in witness to Jesus Christ and choruses of “Amen” compete with distant rattles of gunfire. The faithful sing familiar Christian hymns in Arabic, their voices bouncing off the shipping containers that protect the church from car bombs.
Every Sunday, more than 400 Iraqis travel to this well-to-do neighborhood far from the protection of an American base to worship in the National Biblical Christian Federation Church. Converted from Islam and from other branches of Christianity, they are the first ripple of a tidal wave that evangelical leaders pray will inundate the Middle East.
“I learned about Jesus and eternal life from a friend, and came to this church to see,” said Rana Atass, who has attended weekly services at another church for the last month. Her mother, bearing facial tattoos as some Iraqi women do, stood in a line of congregants to ask church leaders for help in buying food.
“The music is very enthusiastic here,” Atass said. “They promise Jesus will solve many problems.”
At least nine evangelical churches have opened in Baghdad in the last eight months, many supported by American organizations contributing up to $100,000 per church. More than 900,000 Bibles in Arabic -- along with hundreds of tons of food and medical supplies -- have been sent to Iraq. About 30 Christian evangelical missionaries are working in Baghdad, and 150 others have visited since last summer. Some Christian groups focus on offering aid and avoid proselytizing.
These missionaries’ humanitarian and religious labors are fraught with peril. Four Americans affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention were killed and one was critically injured Monday after gunmen opened fire on their vehicle in Mosul, north of Baghdad. A spokesman for the International Mission Board said the Americans had been scouting locations for humanitarian and evangelical work.
An influential Shiite Muslim leader, Sheik Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, said, “Iraqis already see the American occupation as a religious war.” Ghitaa said Shiite and Sunni clerics have discussed issuing a fatwa, or religious edict, against missionaries.
The missionaries -- a mix of professional proselytizers and novices with little or no preparation -- are buoyed by President Bush’s evangelical bent, his oft-repeated biblical references and his vision of freedom spreading out from a saved Iraq.
“God and the president have given us an opportunity to bring Jesus Christ to the Middle East,” said Tom Craig, an independent American missionary working in Iraq and Cyprus. “This is my commandment. No amount of danger will stop me.”
The Colorado Springs-based Christian and Missionary Alliance helped turn the National Biblical Christian Federation Church into a beachhead of Western Christian prayer eight months ago, intensifying a clash of civilizations that has consumed the Middle East for centuries. As the U.S. prepares to return sovereignty to Iraqis on June 30, amid violence and anti-American demonstrations, the stakes have never been higher.
“Iraq will become the center for spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to Iran, Libya, throughout the Middle East,” said Kyle Fisk, executive administrator of the National Assn. of Evangelicals, which represents 4.5 million Christians in the United States.
“President Bush said democracy will spread from Iraq to nearby countries,” Fisk said. “A free Iraq also allows us to spread Jesus Christ’s teachings even in nations where the laws keep us out.”
Iraqi political leaders worry that evangelical efforts will undermine the nation’s stability.
“Extremists, whether Muslims or evangelicals, inspire violence and hatred,” said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. “The newspapers are screaming about a Christian conspiracy.”
The four killed Monday were the most recent missionary casualties. A Rhode Island pastor was killed on St. Valentine’s Day when gunmen opened fire as he and five companions traveled south of Baghdad. Three American missionaries working in a hospital in Yemen were killed by a gunman in December 2002, and a female American missionary was shot dead in Lebanon the month before while working in an evangelical medical clinic.
Missionaries say their work is bringing freedom to Iraq.
“We don’t force Jesus Christ’s love on anyone,” said Darrell Phenicie, an American missionary who teaches theology in Baghdad. “Doesn’t freedom of religion mean the right to learn about other choices?”
Evangelical churches were illegal under Saddam Hussein, although Iraq’s 300,000 nonevangelical Christians were permitted to practice. Proselytizing is banned in most Middle East nations, but Fisk and other evangelical leaders hope to train Iraqi missionaries to work discreetly in other Arab countries.
Aid That Opens Doors
Humanitarian aid is the point of entry for many Christian groups. National Biblical Christian Federation Church has distributed more than 60,000 aid boxes prepared by Samaritan’s Purse, an organization headed by U.S. evangelist Franklin Graham. Many of them were given to Muslims, said Ghassan Thomas, an Iraqi pastor.
“Handing out food is a perfect time to talk about Jesus Christ with nonbelievers.”
Two blocks away from Thomas’ church, evangelicals are building another house of worship, an oasis of marble and bright lights on a dusty, rundown street. The new church has received about $50,000 from Missouri-based Assemblies of God, said Pastor Jules Vivan, and another $50,000 in supplies and assistance from independent American missionaries.
Vivan preaches to only 150 parishioners, but he said his goal, set with assistance from Assemblies of God, is to attract 10,000 more in the next five years.
“It is every Christian’s requirement to share Jesus Christ’s gospel with everyone on the planet, including every Muslim,” said Richard D. Land, president of the public policy arm of the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. “If that causes anger and violence, it only shows we must speak more loudly.”
Some Iraqis and nonevangelical religious leaders say the White House and U.S. military should protect missionaries as well as regulate how they seek Iraqi converts.
Curtailing the work of evangelical missionaries, however, may be politically vexing. Bush’s chief political advisors have said that religious conservatives will be a linchpin in the president’s reelection strategy.
“Iraq, and the war against terrorism, will be very important in getting evangelicals to the polls in November,” said Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition and now chairman of the Bush reelection campaign in the Southeast. “And it is anything but surprising that evangelical pastors would view their own religion as superior to other faiths. Teaching others about Jesus is part of Christianity.”
“Each individual and group that lives and works in Iraq must make their own decisions,” said a White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “These are private groups. Their safety is their responsibility.”
Phone calls seeking comment from the U.S.-backed Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad were not returned.
Reed and other evangelical leaders said most missionaries working in Iraq show a deep respect for Islam and cultural sensitivity. They agreed, however, that the discretion was not shared by all organizations. Leaders of smaller church groups argued that sensitivity was secondary to saving Iraqi souls.
“Yes, sharing Christ’s love causes conflict. But the alternative is allowing people to go to hell,” said Todd Nettleton with Oklahoma-based Voice of the Martyrs. American VOM missionaries have passed out Christian tracts in Baghdad traffic jams, among other activities.
Such attitudes are frequently heard in the evangelical community.
“Many evangelicals feel war in Iraq is part of a broader religious mission,” said John Green, a professor at the University of Akron in Ohio and an expert on the religious right. “And the Bush campaign will do anything they can to mobilize that bloc. Evangelicals not only vote Republican, they produce lots of activists that stuff envelopes, make phone calls -- they are the grass roots.”
Evangelical leaders said they were rushing to establish churches in anticipation that Iraqi laws would curtail missionary access after the return of sovereignty.
“Christians believe we have a six-month window in Iraq,” Nettleton said. “Our attitude is: Let’s do everything we can now.”
American evangelical organizations, including Voice of the Martyrs, the Southern Baptist Convention and Pennsylvania-based Assn. of Baptists for World Evangelism, have said they will focus much of their proselytizing on Muslims in Iraq and surrounding nations.
That focus, however, concerns other Westerners working in the Middle East.
Risks for Colleagues
“This adds to a growing perception that all Americans want to convert Muslims,” said Leanne Clausen with Christian Peacemaker Teams, an American aid group that does not proselytize. Nonevangelical Iraqi churches have been vandalized in recent weeks. Newspaper editorials and Islamic clerics charge that Americans are in Iraq on a religious crusade. Clausen warned: “The missionaries coming here don’t realize the danger they are placing us in.”
Some of those dangers extend to missionaries visiting Iraq who are unprepared for violence. Independent missionaries working in Iraq have little or no formal training for war zones. Some are just American pastors who fly to Iraq and begin working on behalf of a new church.
Iraq’s new churches report enormous success in attracting parishioners. Almost every night they are filled with the newly faithful, drawn by the dynamism and energy that have fueled evangelical growth in the United States.
“When I come here, my heart sings with happiness,” said Jonvia Elias, an Iraqi homemaker who attends the National Anglican Church of the Christian Union. “We learn how to love Jesus and feel joy. It feels very young here.”
Others, particularly converted Muslims, fear that their attendance is dangerous.
At the Holy Renaissance Evangelic Church in Baghdad, a Friday service included three Muslim women in head scarves. All were regular attendees and said they first visited the church at the urging of close friends or missionaries. They continued to attend because of the church’s message of love and upbeat music and community. All, however, feared for their safety.
“I was invited to this church, and I found peace and love here,” said 30-year-old Khalida Khamid. “But I do not tell anyone I am here, and if there are any photos taken, I will leave. It is dangerous.”
Other converted Muslims said the promises of evangelical Christianity outweighed the risks.
Atass’ father, a Muslim who she said was not very devout, forbade her to attend her church. But after a church member helped her find a new job, he relented.
“Baghdad has changed since the Americans came,” Atass said. “It is harder now. I ask Jesus to help.”
As Atass spoke, her mother finally caught the attention of church leaders. They listened to her problems and handed her a box that contained some food, cleaning supplies and a pamphlet about Jesus’ life.
“I want eternal life,” Atass said, “but we also need enough to eat.”
Times staff writer John Goldman in New York and special correspondent Suhail Ahmed contributed to this report.