A crusade after all?

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

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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"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.

Mr. Woodberry has experienced two very different responses in the region. "Opposition has intensified as the Israel-Palestine situation has not been resolved and the Iraq war has been building," he says. "But there's also greater receptivity to the gospel as a result of people's disillusionment with various attempts to institute Islamic law."

Christians have been present in the Middle East since the first century, living harmoniously with Muslims for long periods. Some claim the problems are with a more assertive Western Christianity that uses its wealth in manipulative ways.

"There are very sincere missionaries whom Muslims like," says Dr. Nasr. "But what makes them angry is that US proselytizing is combined with worldly advantages: Poor people are wooed with medicine for their children, syringes for their cows, and then are expected to attend services."

There are also charges of deception. Last June, Mother Jones magazine detailed missionary training at a school in South Carolina that prepared workers to go into countries where evangelism is illegal, win people's trust and then evangelize. A teacher tells, for example, of setting up a quiltmaking business to employ and then proselytize Muslims.

Yet missionary agencies provide schools, hospitals, and disaster relief that would otherwise not be available. The challenge, critics say, lies in the ethics of proselytization - deciding how it is done and when.

What might be the implications of Western evangelization in Iraq? Russia's "soul wars" provide some clues, says Dr. Witte, who headed a three-year study of clashes between indigenous and foreign missionizing faiths in several regions of the world. "Iraq is another episode in an ongoing problem of Western religious groups seeing a new field for a marketplace of religious ideas, and the local groups not being ready to receive them," he adds.

'Spiritual bribery'

In Russia, 10 years of ambitious Western evangelizing brought many benefits in charitable facilities and conversions from atheism, he says. But it also introduced "forms of spiritual bribery" and a Western-style notion of religion as easily changeable. This conflicts with Russian Orthodox and Russian Muslim traditions, "where one is born and grows in a religion as part of one's experience in blood, soil, people, and connection," he says. It has bred great resentment among Russians, who feel the West, "having won the cold war, is now engaging in a form of religious pillaging."

"That view prevails amply in Russia, and I can see it perhaps prevailing in Iraq if [evangelism] develops," Witte says. Russia has reacted with new legislation that curtails many religious rights in favor of state-sanctioned groups.

The situation could be compounded in Iraq, he suggests, because the country is under military law, and internal religious and political differences between Sunni and Shiite Muslims need to be worked out. "Time has to be given for that kind of exercise independent of a phalanx of Christian groups providing additional points of conflict," he says. "This is the last place where Christians should be rushing in."

Woodberry, too, is cautious. "Although Christians are called to witness in both word and deed, timing is very important," he says. "Now there is great mistrust of Americans and Christians." Whatever is done, he adds, should be in cooperation with both Iraqi Christians and Arab Christian organizations.

Some say the White House should simply restrain the president's friends to demonstrate that US forces are not in Iraq to open the door for evangelism. Witte says there's a legal basis for doing so: "The notion that these groups have an unencumbered right to march in and evangelize is simply not so in law - in a military law context, severe restrictions are permissible."

Yet it could likely be done by persuasion. During the first Gulf war, Franklin Graham sent thousands of Arabic-language New Testaments to US troops in Saudi Arabia to pass along to local people. This violated Saudi law and an agreement between the two governments that there would be no proselytizing. When Gen. Norman Swarzkopf had a chaplain call Graham to complain, Graham said he was under higher orders. He later told Newsday, however, that had he been explicitly asked, he would have desisted.

A greater concern of some people is that the administration may in fact support the effort, given the president's beliefs and the import of conservative Christians as a political constituency.

Bush has after all moved ahead with his domestic faith-based initiative, although Congress has not passed the authorizing legislation. Meanwhile, the former deputy director of the White House office for faith-based programs has a new job: building nongovernmental institutions in Iraq.

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