Tragedy of missionaries' murders compounded by misunderstanding

January 16, 2003|By William A. Rugh

WASHINGTON - The deliberate killing of three American medical missionaries in Yemen by an Islamic militant Dec. 30 was a tragic but unusual event in an otherwise long and positive history of American missionary work in the Middle East.

Motivated initially by strong religious desire to accomplish conversions of foreigners to Christianity, many of these missionaries provided medical or other services to the people they wanted to convert, eschewing proselytism.

Not everyone understood that they had changed their mission to a nonreligious one. They believed they were doing Christian work by healing the sick, but a few in the community suspected that they also sought conversions and saw that as a threat.

Daniel Bliss was an American Protestant Christian missionary who decided in the mid-19th century to travel to Beirut, where he thought he would convert the people to Christianity. He quickly realized that most of the people he sought to convert were quite satisfied being Muslim and declined to become Christians.

About a century later, another American Protestant Christian missionary, Dr. Pat Kennedy, traveled to Abu Dhabi, where he and his wife, both trained as medical doctors, opened a small hospital where they provided medical services to local Arabs.

Like Bliss, they quickly realized that they could help people more effectively in other ways than through religious conversion.

Dr. Donald Bosch and his wife, a nurse, went to Muscat, Oman, in 1955 and opened a small hospital for local people. Another group of American doctors went to Yemen, where they opened a clinic in Jibla.

These small teams of American missionaries established modern medical services in places where none existed, and they quickly earned the gratitude and respect of the communities in which they lived.

Sensitive to local feelings, all of these dedicated professionals knew that if they proselytized overtly they would run into resistance from local Muslims who generally did not welcome efforts to convert them to other religions.

Fanatics in the community occasionally made accusations against those in the Jibla clinic, but the governmental authorities protected them because they knew the true nature of their activities.

The work of these quiet Americans is almost entirely unknown in the United States, even more so in the Arab world. When I was ambassador to Yemen from 1992 to 1995, I visited the Jibla Baptist Hospital and saw how the three Americans who were shot to death - Martha Myers, 57, Bill Koehn, 60, and Kathleen Gariety, 53 - were totally devoted to improving the quality of life of other human beings.

When Dr. Myers, the senior physician, arrived in Yemen in 1976, the country was underdeveloped. She traveled hundreds of miles south of the capital on a dirt road and then up a steep and rocky incline to the remote and primitive American clinic. Single and only 32, in a male-dominated society, she had to learn Arabic fast to speak with her patients.

She quickly learned to appreciate the simplicity and hospitality of the hardy mountain folk she worked with. Yemeni men respected her because she was a doctor and Yemeni women sought her out because they were too shy to speak with American men.

They made her feel so welcome that, despite the living conditions, which remained very Spartan, she stayed for 25 years, and regarded Yemen as her home.

It is tragic that their killer did not really know these dedicated Americans - and that he so misunderstood their motives.

William A. Rugh is president and CEO of AMIDEAST, a nonprofit education organization. He was an ambassador and a Foreign Service officer for 30 years.

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