Christian Missionaries Continue to Assist Iraq

Due to escalating violence, the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross and large numbers of contractors have pulled out of Iraq. However, many Christian groups have chosen to remain, according to a report from the Washington Post.

With a population estimated to be more than 95 percent Muslim and outbreaks of violence in the name of Islam occurring on an almost daily basis, Iraq is not a place where Christian missionaries can openly evangelize on street corners, hold community prayer meetings or hand out stacks of Bibles.

"The word 'missionary' carries with it a lot of baggage. It's tainted with notions of Western hegemony and the seeming need to establish political, economic and religious domination," said Jonathan Bonk, editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, which publishes scholarly articles on the topic.

Saddam Hussein's Iraq was largely a secular state, and while Christians were allowed to worship freely, there were only a handful of churches. When the war ended, however, the country was flooded with foreign missionaries, whom some estimate to number in the thousands.

They bought houses and hoisted crosses on the facades, opening up what is estimated to be eight to a dozen new churches. Others entered the country as businessmen or aid workers, roles that let them establish relationships with Iraqis about something other than religion. They set up projects to help rebuild Iraq. In the Baghdad slum of Sadr City, Christian aid workers started a soccer team. In the northern city of Mosul, they built bathrooms in schools. All around Iraq, they gave out food boxes.

Over the past year, Christian aid groups have played a significant, if unofficial, role in the reconstruction of Iraq, helping with various projects: repairing water purification facilities, building a book-bag factory to create employment and holding classes to teach people English. And some have drawn criticism that they endanger the lives of secular aid workers and the military because insurgents may associate Christianity with Western domination, or because they disguise their intentions.

Many Iraqis, however, have accepted the assistance with gratitude and associate the presence of Christian missionaries with democracy and freedom of choice.

In sermons at mosques and in proclamations in newspapers, many Islamic leaders say Iraqis should welcome the assistance of the Christian aid groups. At the same time they have called for Christians to be banned from proselytising in Iraq -- as they are in many other Middle Eastern countries. They say they remain suspicious that some aid workers have other motives, both religious and political.

As June 30, the planned date of the turnover of limited authority to Iraqis, draws closer, some missionaries worry that they will be kicked out of the country by more-conservative Islamic leaders.

Kenneth Chan
Ecumenical Press