The New York Times, Dec. 31, 2002
By SUSAN SACHS
As evangelical Christian emissaries have spread throughout the Muslim world, their presence has increasingly proved to be a lightning rod for anti-American sentiment while provoking the anger of native Christian sects and Islamic clerics.
The murder of three American missionaries yesterday at the hospital where they worked in Yemen, and the killing of another American missionary in southern Lebanon in November, underscored the dangers of working at the intersection of religion and politics.
The negative reaction is not limited to Muslim countries, but has been seen in Hindu-dominated nations like India, where a Christian missionary family was burned to death in an attack three years ago.
“With the rise of religious politics, missionaries come into the cross hairs of Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists,” said Bernard Haykel, an assistant professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University. “Certainly as the Arab and Muslim world has become more radicalized Islamically, people have become more aware of missionaries and more irritated by them.”
Christian missionaries have been active across much of the Muslim Middle East for hundreds of years, at least as far back as the Crusades.
But successive generations of missionaries found that proselytizing to Muslims was a dangerous business. Under Muslim law, conversion from Islam is punishable by death.
Rather than enrage local authorities and risk their own deaths or expulsions, missionaries aimed for softer targets. American Protestant missionaries in the 19th century, for example, built universities and hospitals and tried to convert Coptic Christians in Egypt and Greek Orthodox Christians in Lebanon.
The Orthodox and Coptic churches, which have lived among Muslims for centuries, know how to cultivate their own flocks without threatening the political territory of Muslim rulers and clerics. The newly arrived evangelical Christian groups, in the view of these older indigenous churches, trample the unwritten rules.
In Lebanon, the Roman Catholic diocese and Muslim groups have accused the evangelical Christians of trying to convert Muslims. One bishop said Bonnie Penner Witherall, the missionary killed by a gunman last month, combined preaching about Christianity with the distribution of toys and food to Muslim children.
When the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan arrested eight Western evangelical Christian aid workers in 2001, they made similar accusations, saying the workers had been distributing Christian literature and should be killed. The eight were freed during the American attack on the Taliban, and later one acknowledged that they had shown Afghans a film about Jesus.
Proselytizing sects like the Southern Baptist Convention, which owns the hospital in Jibla, Yemen, where the missionaries were killed, have said they do not actively seek to convert people if prohibited by government authorities.
Jerry Rankin, president of the International Mission Board, which runs the missionary activities of the Southern Baptists, asserted that the missionaries in Jibla promoted Christianity by example.
“Our people naturally do respect the religious beliefs of others,” said Mr. Rankin, “and they try to relate to people in a loving way through friendships and relationships.”
Still, the hospital has not avoided entanglement in Yemen’s religious politics. In 1995 it was accused by Islah, an opposition political party, of defaming Islam and proselytizing among Yemen’s Muslims.
Although a court dismissed the charges, the incendiary message of the lawsuit was not lost on some of its local backers. The State Department, in its reports on human rights in Yemen, said Muslim hospital employees continued to be harassed by Islah members for several years.
More recently the number of volunteer missionaries has exploded, with some 7,000 college and high school students signing up for short-term evangelical missions overseas.
The Mission Board’s Web site also boasts of a record number of baptisms — 395,773 so far this year — as a result of its foreign missionary work. “There is discussion on strategy changes, to become less institutional and to work primarily in church-planting and face-to-face evangelism,” said Jack Graham, a Texas pastor and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. “When you’re up close and personal with someone hopefully they will believe in you.”
In accordance with that strategy, Pastor Graham said, the Baptists have already decided to turn over their hospital in Yemen to a local Muslim group and shift resources to mobile clinics that would bring missionaries into contact with more Yemenis.
The missionaries who have died are martyrs, the pastor said. “This is not a conflict between religions but a conflict between God and Satan, between good and evil,” he said. “We want to be sensitive to the political climate. We certainly want to work with governments where our missions have been placed and we don’t want to create a political/religious crisis. But as far as the Southern Baptists are concerned, we will continue to express our love for God.”