Risks catch up to missionaries

Baptists: Four are killed in Iraq, victims of the violence increasingly directed against civilian aid workers.

March 17, 2004|By Ryan Davis and Jean Marbella | Ryan Davis and Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

RICHMOND, Va. - The appeal went out to Southern Baptists in December. Iraq, a country long closed to missionaries, was finally open to them, said an article posted on the Web site of the denomination's International Mission Board.

"So what are Southern Baptists doing about it?" asked the article, bearing a Baghdad dateline. "Not enough, say International Mission Board workers risking their lives to meet human needs and share the gospel inside Iraq."

That risk proved not to be theoretical. Four Southern Baptist missionaries working in Mosul were killed in a drive-by shooting Monday, and a fifth colleague remained in critical condition yesterday.

The violence that has besieged Iraq is increasingly directed against aid workers such as the five missionaries, who were working on several projects in Mosul, including scouting the area for a possible water purification project. Two Europeans, also working on a water project, were killed yesterday in another drive-by shooting, this one south of Baghdad.

At the headquarters of the International Mission Board here, which coordinates the worldwide missionary efforts of the Southern Baptist Convention, tears and prayers flowed for the fallen colleagues. Board spokesmen said missionaries cannot let danger sway them from their calling, which, as the inscription on the globe in front of the brick building states, is to: "Go ... and make disciples of all nations."

Even a nation that is largely Muslim like Iraq. Even a nation as dangerous as Iraq.

"We're committed to take that message to the world," said spokeswoman Wendy Norvelle, "to all people everywhere, even ones in risky situations."

The missionaries killed Monday were Larry T. Elliott, 60, and his wife, Jean Dover Elliott, 58, North Carolina natives who had worked in Honduras since 1978 and transferred to Iraq only last month; Karen Denise Watson, 38, of Bakersfield, Calif., who gave up her job as a detention officer to work as a missionary; and David E. McDonnall, 28, of Rowlett, Tex., a recent seminary graduate who died as he was being transported to a military hospital in Baghdad. His wife, Carrie, 26, was injured in the attack and airlifted yesterday to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, where she was in critical condition.

The five missionaries were traveling without armed guards, which would only serve to come between them and the people they wanted to help, Mission Board officials said. A missionary's best weapon, they added, is knowledge of the culture.

"They're becoming neighbors," said another spokesman, Bill Bangham. "You don't become a neighbor with a weapon by your side or an armed guard. You don't make the relationships or connections."

Citing safety concerns, Mission Board officials would not say how many of its 5,411 overseas workers are based in Iraq. U.S. officials said there is no way to estimate how many religious or aid workers are in Iraq; the workers are not required to check in with any government agency. Iraq, in its present state of chaos, has little of the established official channels that non-governmental organizations would normally work with, such as embassies or even the United Nations, which has coordinated its work in Iraq from offices in Jordan since its Baghdad headquarters were bombed in August.

Since the Mission Board's founding in 1845, fewer than 30 of its missionaries have died in what the agency calls "violent deaths." But the toll, and the level of violence, has increased greatly of late: With Monday's tragedy, eight missionaries have been murdered in the past 15 months.

Three Southern Baptist workers were killed in an attack on a hospital in Yemen in December 2002, and a missionary working in the Philippines died in an airport bombing in March last year.

Even as missionaries increasingly find themselves vulnerable to attack, their work remains controversial. Christian groups such as the Southern Baptists have been criticized for their recent focus on Muslim countries such as Iraq. Some fear that their humanitarian efforts are a Trojan horse, gaining them entry for their real goal of proselytizing and converting Muslims to Christianity.

At the Mission Board's headquarters here, the intent of the group's worldwide efforts is clear. In the lobby, nine framed portraits of people from around the world each bear a message, such as this one below a picture of a man from India: "Pray that they will abandon their 35 million Hindu gods for one true God."

But in the aftermath of Monday's tragedy, Mission Board officials were careful to note that their overseas workers were providing aid, not trying to convert souls.

"We don't have any missionaries in Iraq," Bangham said. "We have humanitarian relief workers. They're demonstrating God's love through their projects."

Ron Medeiros, a friend of Watson, one of the missionaries killed, agreed.

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