The deaths of four Southern Baptist “humanitarian aid workers” March 15 point not only to the danger facing American civilians in Iraq, but also renew questions about methods used by Christian mission groups to infiltrate predominantly Muslim countries.
Like many Muslim countries, Iraq does not allow visas for religious workers. That means people sent in by mission organizations are there officially as humanitarian workers or with some other job.
That raises questions: If the personnel are there for evangelism, is it deceptive to pretend otherwise? If they are not, is it missions?
A mission leader with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship said that group is reviewing its strategy of placing workers in restricted-access countries through what critics call a “clandestine” approach.
“Virtue would dictate to us that good ends should always be accompanied by good means,” said Gary Baldridge, the CBF co-coordinator for global missions. “That being the case, how can we begin seeking to ensure that in our Great Commission zeal we also present ourselves in ways that are consistent with the message?”
Officials of the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention say the four slain workers, along with a fifth who survived the shooting attack in Mosul, were in Iraq for humanitarian purposes and not to proselytize.
“We don’t have any missionaries in Iraq,” IMB spokesman Bill Bangham said in the Baltimore Sun. “We have humanitarian relief workers. They’re demonstrating God’s love through their projects.”
But “humanitarian workers” like the slain IMB personnel are transparent in their hope that their efforts will result in Iraqi people being more open to a Christian witness. Baptist Press in March described Baptist volunteers in various regions of Iraq “distributing food and Bibles and sowing seeds of interest in what God wants to do in the nation.”
Much of the emphasis in evangelical mission strategy has shifted since the 1980s from Latin America and Africa to “unreached” peoples in what missiologists call the “10/40 Window,” the countries of the world with the least exposure to Christianity but heavily influenced by Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism.
With that shift came new strategies. Since many countries deny visas to religious workers, evangelical groups relied on “tentmakers,” people who enter a country under the guise of a different profession, while sharing their faith on the side as they build relationships.
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,” Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations said last year in the Los Angeles Times. “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….”
Thousands of food boxes packaged last year by Southern Baptist churches for Iraq did not contain religious literature, but workers distributing the food gave Bibles to those who wanted them. One IMB news release reported that in some instances recipients valued the Injil, the Arabic name for the New Testament, even more than the food.
A Shiite Muslim leader quoted by the Los Angeles Times said Iraqis “already see the American occupation as a religious war,” and that Shiite and Sunni clerics have discussed issuing a fatwa, or religious ban, against missionaries.
The Arabic news service Al Jazeera estimated that about 100 Christian missionaries have entered Iraq since Baghdad fell last April. “The presence of missionaries in the majority-Muslim country is highly resented by locals as another element of foreign interference,” Al Jazeera observed in its English online edition.
Baldridge said the question is an “ongoing struggle” at the CBF, which includes in its pictorial directory silhouetted figures to represent workers who cannot be identified because they are in places where missionaries are unwelcome. Only minutes before his interview with EthicsDaily.com, Baldridge said, a CBF worker had shared a prayer concern “about how difficult it is to remain present in some countries of the world when the government does not want you there.”
“It was only in the late ’80s that we started having the kind of access to every part of the world we have today,” Baldridge said. “As we found that we could have access, as the Free Church tends to do, we don’t always critically examine and do our theology of our practices, but we simply tend to latch on to what works or what seems to work.”
“The result is that we end up getting into a few crises of conscience later on … out of what originally was done with the best of motivation.”
Baldridge said it is unlikely the CBF would totally abandon the method, and that not all CBF personnel would agree there needs to be a change. But he said leaders are discussing putting greater emphasis, for example, on ministry to internationals studying or working temporarily in the U.S., who can in turn witness to their own culture when they return home.
“It may be we can be effective in ways that aren’t putting us on the border line of ethical issues,” Baldridge said.
One factor driving evangelical workers into Iraq is newfound religious freedom since the fall of Saddam Hussein, coupled with concerns that it might not last. Iraq’s first Baptist church ever was dedicated in March. It is one of several evangelical churches to open in Baghdad the last several months, most with financial aid from American organizations, according to the L.A. Times.
An interim constitution signed March 8 in Baghdad contained several statements on religious freedom. Christians and moderates in Iraq wonder how long they will enjoy those freedoms after the U.S.-led provisional military coalition is gone. Baptist Press last year quoted an Iraqi Baptist leader as saying Christians and other minorities are “more afraid of the fundamentalists inside and outside of Iraq than they ever were of Saddam.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.