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Christians see chance to bring Jesus to Iraq
By Eric Gorski Denver Post Religion Writer

27 March 2003

Denver Post


- At Riverside Baptist Church, in an auditorium ringed with flags from 140 nations, believers are praying not only for U.S. troops and a quick end to war in Iraq, but a flowering of Christianity in a nation that's 98 percent Muslim.

The 3,500-member west Denver congregation, like many evangelical Christian churches and organizations, views the Iraq war as a opportunity to spread its faith.

"We would see any crisis or tragedy as an opportunity to make God known, to make Jesus Christ known," said the Rev. Rick Lewis, senior associate pastor at Riverside, Colorado's largest Southern Baptist church.

Some evangelical groups are not waiting for the war to end to begin their work. The Southern Baptist Convention and the Rev. Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse announced this week they've mobilized workers in Jordan who are waiting for a safe time to launch humanitarian and missionary trips into Iraq.

Those efforts, some say, could stir resentment in the Arab world, where the Bush administration is emphasizing the Iraq war has nothing to do with religion.

To evangelical leaders, the idea is not to launch a new crusade, but to promote the freedom for people to choose a faith. To Muslims, it's another attack on their religion and not the first time missionaries have come with bread in one hand and a Bible in the other.

The desire to spread Christianity is at the very heart of evangelicalism and based on the Great Commission, Jesus' biblical command to "go forth and make disciples of all nations."

Over the past 20 years, especially after the fall of communism, Christian mission groups have put a greater emphasis on targeting Muslim nations. That can lead to conflict, in part because Islam, too, is a missionary faith.

Because of restrictions on evangelizing, many Christian missionaries cloak their intentions in secular relief work. In Afghanistan in 2001, Marines rescued Americans Heather Mercer and Dayna Curry, self-described "Christian aid workers," after they were imprisoned for sharing their faith.

The U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan opened the door for a missionary family from Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada to move rice and supplies into the country, said Roger Gerard, who coordinates the church's mission work. About 23 families from the 4,000-member church are serving as missionaries in countries including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

The fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq would likely result in a willing audience for Christian missionaries, said Cheryl Morrison, director of Faith Bible Chapel's women's and Israel ministries.

"People get so attuned to oppression, they don't really allow themselves to think outside that," she said. "When that's raised, that's fertile ground for the Gospel."

At Riverside Baptist, the flags serve as constant reminders of the church's global focus. Lewis, the senior associate pastor, frames the Iraq war in terms of personal freedom.

"If (Iraqis) want freedom, the price of freedom is that there is religious freedom," he said.

Lewis said he does not think Islam is inherently evil, as some evangelical leaders said in the months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Those statements widened the gap between two faiths that already had a strained relationship.

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations, said mixing relief work and proselytizing in Iraq fits a long history of missionaries using deception.

"They go in under the guise of helping people, and what they really want is to help them leave their faith," Hooper said. "It's really a despicable practice - going to people who are extremely vulnerable, in a very bad situation, and using widely disproportionate power relationships to get them to change their faith."

Hooper warned that if missionaries follow soldiers into the country, U.S. statements that the war is not against Islam are undermined.

"It sends the message to the Muslim and Arab world that the stated intent of the attack on Iraq is not what the intent really is," he said.

Roy Oksnevad, director of the Ministries to Muslims Department at the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, an evangelical college in Illinois, rejected the claim that evangelical missionaries capitalize on dire situations.

"That's not it at all," Oksnevad said. "Oftentimes, in times of crisis, it's important for us as Christians to walk with people and pray with them and help them find peace, and ultimately peace is found in Christ."