- Registration time
- Last login
- Online time
- 2778 Hour
- Reading permission
Kristian missionaries preying war orphans
Missionaries' war for souls raises Iraq tension
March 25, 2004
Fears are growing that the presence in Iraq of foreign Christians will increase the risk of violence against foreigners and local Christians alike.
Paul McGeough reports from Baghdad.
After the declaration of "a war for souls" by US Christians, the arrival in Iraq of missionaries with almost a million Arabic translations of the Bible has become a new security flashpoint.
Non-religious aid workers accuse the missionaries of exposing all foreigners to more attacks because of the risk of inflaming Muslim sensitivities.
After the murder last week of four US missionaries at Mosul, in the north, an American church worker refused to talk to The Age, because the reporting of any identifying information could make him and his church a target. "You guys (reporters) are spotters for snipers," he said.
A spate of deadly attacks on foreigners has left US occupation officials in Iraq confused as to whether the four were targeted because they were foreigners or because they were missionaries.
But they have taken the precaution of removing a list of about 50 Christian aid groups from public files in Baghdad.
Sheikh Fatih Kashif Ghitaa, head of Baghdad's Strategic Studies Centre, was in no doubt: "Most Iraqis think the US wants to erase Islam, so this would have fed into the thinking of the attackers at Mosul. There will be more such attacks."
Iraq's population of 25 million is mostly Muslim. There are an estimated 1 million followers of various Christian creeds who, like Muslims, were allowed to practise only if they adhered to strictures imposed by Saddam Hussein's regime. All are free now.
However, Muslims who convert to Christianity are described by fellow Muslims as "renegades" and, according to some sources, can face death for the "sin" of rejecting Islam.
And the Christians still suffer. As operators of the country's liquor stores, they have been subjected to arson and armed attacks from an Islamist campaign to rid Iraq of Western vice. Their children are frequently taken hostage in a postwar wave of kidnappings.
It seems OK for Xerox and McDonald's (to be in Iraq) but heaven forbid a church would say it has work to do here.
An American church worker
Now they harbour a new fear: while some of their churches say they refuse to accept funds, advice or co-operation offered by US Christians, all worry their churches might be targeted in the same way hotels with Western guests have come under fire.
Before last week's Mosul attack, some of the new Christian arrivals volunteered that they were handing out Christian tracts and seeking converts. Now they are quick to claim themselves to be non-proselytising humanitarian workers or evangelists who confine their activities to the Christian community.
But when a US Christian website reported the death of the missionaries in Mosul, it left a question mark on such claims, stating: "As a tactic in such sensitive areas, missionaries engage in 'good works', reaching out through humanitarian efforts, and sharing their faith with appreciative and curious locals only when asked about it."
The unguarded rhetoric and pumped-up claims on these sites are seen by some Iraqis as proof the invasion of their country was part of a US war against Islam.
A former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention, Jerry Vines, has spoken of the Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-obsessed pedophile". Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham and operator of Samaritan's Purse, which is big in Iraq, had declared Islam to be a "very evil and wicked religion".
When a senior executive of the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board, John Brady, launched an appeal in the US late last year, he said: "(You) must understand that there is a war for souls under way in Iraq."
But alluding to missionary worries that the free movement they enjoy to and from Iraq under the US occupation could end if the Americans hand sovereignty back to an Iraqi government on June 30, another Baptist executive told a church conference in the US: "Right now we have a 90-day, maybe a 120-day, opportunity to get into Iraq. Everything is open to us."
New evangelical churches, which draw between 100 and 500 worshippers to services, have been opening in Baghdad at a rate of one a month since the fall of the city last April. Pastors at several were reluctant in the past few days to reveal if they had received foreign help.
Asked about seeking converts, Pastor Raad Josef Easa, 28, at the Free Methodist Church, was cryptic: "We are open for all people. This is God's house and there is freedom of religion in the new Iraq."
At the Light Independent Church of Baghdad, the pastor, who declined to be named, accused missionaries of attaching strings to offers of help: "When we asked them for money they said we would have to be like them. They made big mistakes in going to Mosul and they are causing security problems for all of us. Muslims are committed to God, too, so it would be better for these people to encourage Muslims to be good Muslims than for them to switch to Christianity. I don't seek converts."
The US church worker who was worried about snipers - and who is not a Baptist - insisted his group's policy was to encourage Iraqi churches to be independent.
Arguing that even hundreds of missionaries were unlikely to dent Islam's following, he said: "Everyone should share Jesus Christ with their neighbour. It seems OK for Xerox and McDonald's (to be in Iraq) but heaven forbid a church would say it has work to do here."
Sheikh Ghitaa did not question the sincerity of the missionaries, but said he had grave suspicions about those who sent them to Iraq.
Referring to strong Christian right-wing support for President George Bush, he said: "They are being sent for political and military advantage for the US."
Sheikh Ghitaa said a recent meeting of Islamic and Christian leaders had discussed issuing a fatwa against the missionaries, but had decided not to in the belief they might capitalise on it. Instead, he said: "Our decision was to put our religion in our hearts and our country in our minds. Otherwise there would be disaster."
You still think we need this bloody religion?