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A crusade after all?

Plans of some Christians to evangelize as they offer aid pose dilemma for Iraqi reconstruction.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 17, 2003

When President Bush called his war on terrorism a "crusade," he backtracked quickly in the face of intense reaction at home and abroad. Now many people are worried that, in the case of Iraq, that inopportune choice of words may turn out to hold more than a modicum of truth.

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As Christian relief agencies prepare to enter Iraq, some have announced their intent to combine aid with evangelization. They include groups whose leaders have proclaimed harshly negative views of Islam. They are also friends of the president. The White House has shrugged its shoulders, saying it can't tell private groups what to do, though legal experts disagree.

Yet to many Muslims and Christians alike, proselytizing at this highly volatile moment in the newly liberated country, with Muslims worldwide questioning US motives, could only spur outrage and undermine US policy in the region as well as in Iraq.

"Coming in the wake of a military conquest of an Arab country, and of openly hostile statements by [the Rev. Franklin] Graham and others, it's going to backfire in the worst way for US plans to be seen as a liberator," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.

The distress over these plans reflects the increasing contention that surrounds proselytizing around the globe, as the world shrinks and faiths rub elbows and jockey for adherents. Islam and Christianity both make universal claims, and believers have the obligation to spread the message. Converts represent some 30 percent of US Muslims, for example. And within Islam, sects such as the Wahhabis have pressed their particular strain by sponsoring imams, schools, and teaching materials in many nations. Evangelical Christians mounted a global missionary effort in 2000 to reach Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in targeted regions, including the Middle East.

While religious rights have been set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, issues of proper and improper proselytism have not been resolved. And neither Islamic states nor evangelical Christians fully accept the international role.

Iraq is particularly volatile, because it has just emerged from a dictatorship and is under military occupation. And those planning to proselytize are known in the region: the former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention has called the prophet Muhammad a "demon-possessed pedophile," and Mr. Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse, has termed Islam "an evil religion."

Their remarks flew across the Muslim world with such effect that a group of Baptist missionaries working in 10 predominantly Muslim countries sent a letter home calling for restraint and saying such comments "heighten animosity toward Christians," affecting their work and personal safety.

Graham's close ties to the administration - he gave the prayer at Mr. Bush's inauguration and is invited to give the Good Friday prayer at the Pentagon - give Muslims the impression, some say, that evangelization efforts are part of US plans to shape Iraqi society in a Western image.

History's long reach

Such efforts reawaken colonialist images of missionaries following British and French troops into the Middle East in the 19th and 20th centuries. And that, critics add, plays directly into the hands of Osama bin Laden, whose missives have predicted a Christian crusade.

Aggressive proselytizing has created a tension between rights - the religious-freedom right to proselytize on the one hand, and a liberty-of-conscience right to be free from intrusion on the other, says John Witte, head of the law and religion program at Emory University Law School in Atlanta. This tension is heightened when a territory is newly open and vulnerable because of past oppression. With the collapse of communism, for example, Western religious groups rushed into Russia to provide aid and to proselytize, and eventually met with a backlash from indigenous spiritual and political leaders.

In recent years, evangelicals have targeted as their priority a swath of the world dubbed "the 10/40 window" (North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude). Restrictions in Muslim countries on proselytizing vary from Pakistan, where visas are given to missionaries, to Saudi Arabia, where no activity is allowed, says J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islam at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., who has spent years in Pakistan and Afghanistan.