Bu-lat-lat (boo-lat-lat) verb: to search, probe, investigate, inquire; to unearth facts
Volume III, Number 44 December 7 - 13, 2004 Quezon City, Philippines
Bible Belt Missionaries Set Out On a 'War for Souls' in Iraq
US Christian evangelists want to "save Muslim souls" in Iraq.
American Christian missionaries have declared a "war for souls" in Iraq, telling supporters that the formal end of the US-led occupation next June will close an historic "window of opportunity".
Organising in secrecy, and emphasising their humanitarian aid work, Christian groups are pouring into the country, which is 97 per cent Muslim, bearing Arabic Bibles, videos and religious tracts designed to "save" Muslims from their "false" religion.
The International Mission Board, the missionary arm of the Southern Baptists, is one of those leading the charge.
John Brady, the IMB's head for the Middle East and North Africa, this month appealed to the 16 million members of his church, the largest Protestant denomination in America.
"Southern Baptists have prayed for years that Iraq would somehow be opened to the gospel," his appeal began. That "open door" for Christians may soon close.
"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.
The missionaries are mainly evangelicals who reject talk of Muslims and Christians worshipping the same God.
Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, has described the Prophet Mohammed as a "demon-obsessed paedophile". Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham and the head of Samaritan's Purse, a big donor to Iraq, has described Islam as a "very evil and wicked religion".
The missionaries pose a dilemma for President George W Bush. He has reached out to Muslims since September 11, shrugging off criticism from evangelicals to describe Islam as "peaceful". But Christian conservatives are also a key Bush constituency: Franklin Graham delivered the invocation prayer at his presidential inauguration.
The US Agency for International Development has said that the government cannot rein in private charities. "Imagine what the US Congress would say to us," said a spokesman in April.
Jon Hanna, an evangelical from Ohio who has recently returned from Iraq, applied for a new passport to travel there, describing himself as a humanitarian worker. "I was worried the US authorities might try to stop us, might be worried we were going to start a riot with our Bibles."
In Baghdad last month Mr Hanna met two other American missionary teams. One, from Indiana, had shipped in 1.3 million Christian tracts. "A US passport is all you need to get in, until the new Iraqi government takes over. What we thought was a two-year window, originally, has narrowed down to a six month window," said Mr Hanna, an evangelical minister and editor of Connection Magazine, a Christian newspaper in Ohio.
He describes Islam as "false". He cited St John's Gospel, saying: "Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist."
Mr Hanna concluded: "The Muslim religion is an antichrist religion." Later Mr Hanna asked to retract that choice of words. "Without the reader hearing my voice and looking into my eyes as I made that statement, it would be easy for certain readers to feel personally attacked and be offended," Mr Hanna wrote by email. "That would be unfruitful."
He rejected the suggestion that aid work was a "cover" for missionary work, preferring to call it a "conduit for sharing the gospel of Jesus. Christians are commanded to minister to the hungry, but also to the hunger of the spirit. It can't be separated," he said.
In public, the largest groups put the emphasis on their delivery of food parcels and their medical work. However, their internal fund-raising materials emphasise 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."
Southern Baptists from North Carolina visited Iraq in October to help hand out 45,000 boxes of donated food. One of the team, Jim Walker, told IMB's Urgent News bulletin that he met village children "starved of attention and I could tell some of them have not eaten well. But their biggest need is to know the love of Christ."
Mr Hanna said he encountered friendly curiosity, with noisy crowds gathering to take his group's tracts. "Maybe 10 per cent were hostile." He was one of 21 on his mission including Jackie Cone, 72, a Pentecostalist grandmother from Ohio who said God had told her to join a second mission planned for next year. "I sensed Him telling me to come back in January," she said.
Mrs Cone is confident she made converts in Baghdad. In her hotel she met a Muslim woman on crutches with a leg operation due that day. Mrs Cone knelt on the lobby floor and prayed that surgery would not be required.
"I saw her that evening and she said God had healed her, and she hadn't needed the surgery. She didn't say Allah, she pointed to Heaven and gave God the glory," she said.
Mrs Cone led the Kurdish woman and her brother in prayer, asking Jesus into their hearts. "I'd given them a Bible and a Jesus video in Arabic. I think they think of themselves as Christians now," she said. "They have the Bible and I hope they will grow in grace."
Muslims are hard converts, American missionaries admit. The large organisations have experts trained in refuting Muslim teachings that Jesus is just another prophet.
Before going to Iraq, Mr Hanna studied Christian training manuals and attended a seminar for missionaries to the Arab world.
Mr Hanna concedes his new Iraqi friends were possibly drawn by the novelty of meeting Americans. "But you don't discount that, you use it as an opportunity to tell them about Jesus. Last time we only took 8,000 Arabic Bibles to Iraq. In future missions the goal is one million."
December 27, 2003