Last March, in anticipation of a quick U.S. victory, several U.S. Christian evangelical organizations set their sights on delivering bandages and Bibles to Iraq. More than eleven months later, concerned that the window of opportunity will soon be slammed shut, evangelical groups are still hustling about the country. Ironically, while these U.S.-based Christian missionaries are struggling to convert Muslims, the country's Christian community – numbering less than one million out of a population of 23 - 25 million and made up of mostly Assyrian Catholics – is under ongoing attack.
Most Iraqi Christians are Assyrian Catholics, known as Chaldeans. There are also followers of other Catholic rites, Orthodox believers, and smaller numbers of Protestants.
In the face of the increasing persecution of Iraqi Christians, conservative U.S. evangelicals have been silent, columnist Glen Chancy charged in September of last year. In a piece entitled "Christians in Iraq," Chancy wrote that evangelicals have not vigorously protested "the inability/unwillingness of U.S. forces to protect Iraqi Christians ... [and] their cause has not been championed by any of the televangelists." Evangelicals haven't made "Christian persecution in post-Saddam Iraq ... a centerpiece article in any of the Evangelical magazines," Chancy noted.
The London Telegraph reported in late December that "American Christian missionaries have declared a 'war for souls' in Iraq ... [and] are pouring into the country, which is 97 percent Muslim, bearing Arabic Bibles, videos and religious tracts designed to 'save' Muslims from their 'false' religion." Evangelical groups were organizing "in secrecy, and emphasizing their humanitarian aid work."
Leading the evangelical onslaught is the International Mission Board, the missionary arm of the Southern Baptists.
In a December appeal, John Brady, the IMB's head for the Middle East and North Africa, pointed out that "Southern Baptists have prayed for years that Iraq would somehow be opened to the gospel," but he expressed concern that the "open door" for Christians may soon be shut. "Southern Baptists must understand that there is a war for souls under way in Iraq," his bulletin added, listing Islamic leaders and "pseudo-Christian" groups also flooding Iraq as his chief rivals.
"In public," the London Telegraph report noted, "the largest groups put the emphasis on their delivery of food parcels and their medical work. However, their internal fund-raising materials emphasize mission work. One IMB bulletin reported aid workers handing out copies of the New Testament and praying with Muslim recipients. Another bulletin said Iraqis understood 'who was bringing the food ... it was the Christians from America.'"
On December 9, the IMB announced that it wanted to send more missionaries to Iraq but it lacked financial resources and volunteers to do so, the ASSIST News Service reported. "We've been asking and praying for years for God to open the doors into Iraq so we can do something. And now that it's happened we just have a handful of workers" said the IMB's Mike Creswell. "We're scraping for money to be able to really take advantage of the opportunity there."
Glen Chancy elaborated on his charges that US evangelicals were not interested in the plight of Iraqi Christians in a mid-January e-mail exchange with TomPaine.com:While "I am happy anytime anyone is willing to give food, blankets, and medicines to the victims of war ... I do have concerns about the presence of Evangelical's in Iraq," Chancy wrote.
"Evangelizing Muslims is difficult work, not the least because convincing a Muslim to change his religion can get missionaries killed. ... Historically Evangelical missionaries operating in situations such as Iraq have focused on a far safer mission field. That is – converting Christians to Christianity. No one gets violent if a Roman Catholic Assyrian becomes a Protestant fundamentalist. If the current situation runs true to historical form (Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Egypt, etc), then the Evangelicals will end up making a fair number of converts among the indigenous Christians, and almost none among the Muslims."
Ironically, as Chancy points out, converting Assyrian Catholics could have a deleterious effect on that community because "Evangelical missionaries sow dissension and form rifts. It is its unity and community spirit that have allowed the Assyrian community to survive in a hostile environment, by making converts among them, Evangelicals make them more vulnerable."
As in his September article, Chancy pointed out that from the beginning "the announcements of relief efforts in Iraq did not focus on Iraqi Christians. Rather, they played up the opportunity to help Muslims. In fact, there is a major dearth of conservative media/Christian media coverage of the plight of Iraqi Christians ... there just aren't many people talking about the Assyrians.
"If the Evangelical power structure truly cared about Assyrians, then they would be busy demanding that the U.S. administration under Paul Bremer do something to protect them, or at least clamor for our withdrawal before we radicalize the place to the point that we get them [Assyrians] all killed."
Conditions for Iraqi Christians continue to deteriorate. A recent Reuters report pointed out that "More than 400 liquor stores run by Christians, the only community allowed to sell alcohol under the former Baathist government, were forced to close in the immediate aftermath of the US led occupation of Iraq."
In addition, Christians have expressed fears that "Shiite religious parties now wield power [in Basra] and seek to impose strict moral regulations, similar to Iran."
"Alcohol selling has changed from Christians to Muslims. Now it's Muslims who sell after taking the trade from us," Joseph Hanna, a Christian property developer and hotel owner who blames militant Shiite groups for the killings, told Reuters. "We fear for our lives and our interests from the extremist Shiites who are targeting us as Christians," said Misak Victor, another liquor merchant.
Armed Shiite groups – God's Vengeance, God's Party and the Islamic Bases Organization – "roam the streets to chase mobsters, drug addicts and prostitutes, exacting their brand of what they call God's law," according to Reuters. "The number of parties carrying Islam's banner is a force to reckon with in the post-Saddam political order, holding sway in local councils and competing with a beleaguered police force in imposing order in the unruly streets."
In December, the Boston Globe, pointing out that that attacks against Christians had reached Baghdad as well, said that "radical Shiite Muslims have begun tacking up leaflets in Christian neighborhoods [in Baghdad] warning women to cover their heads in Islamic fashion, threatening death to anyone wearing a cross in public, and boasting that Iraq, like neighboring Iran, will become a religious dictatorship with no tolerance for those who refuse to proclaim Mohammed as the true prophet."
More than 2 000 families in Basra – out of a community of some 100,000 Christians – have already left the city, going to the northern cities of Mosul and Baghdad. "If this situation continues there will not be one Christian in Basra," said goldsmith Naji Ahanyous.
In mid-February, the U.S. military confirmed that Iraqi gunmen had murdered John Kelley, the pastor of Curtis Corner Baptist Church, an independent Baptist church in South Kingstown, R.I., as he was riding in a taxi outside Baghdad. According to Baptist Press News, Kelley "was traveling with about 10 other ministers who went to Iraq on a two-week trip to explore the possibility of starting a church there."