Missionary’s murder in Lebanon reopens religious wounds

The New York Times, Via the International Herald Tribune, Nov. 26, 2002
Neil MacFarquhar
Tuesday, November 26, 2002

SIDON, Lebanon With hymns and prayers, fellow missionaries eulogized Bonnie Penner Witherall, grieving for the 31-year-old American killed last week by a gunman at the prenatal clinic where she worked.

Garry Witherall, the victim’s British husband, told the spillover crowd Sunday of several hundred mourners that he understood how some people might consider his wife’s death a “waste.” But he said he would never see it that way because they had come to Lebanon to spread the love and hope of knowing Jesus.

“This is a message worth laying down our lives for,” he said, before dissolving into sobs that spread through the crowd.

The Lebanese authorities, who have yet to make an arrest, say they are looking at the case in the context of the anti-Americanism currently raging across Lebanon and much of the Middle East.

But her death exposes an unusual and now violent crosscurrent in the gulf between the Middle East and the West, aggravated by a renewed effort in recent years by evangelist missionaries from the United States to spread the Gospel of Christ to Muslims.

From the start, the question of conversions to Christianity was a potentially explosive issue in a country struggling to glue itself back together after fracturing along largely sectarian lines in the 15-year civil war that ended a decade ago.

Religious affiliations are more than simply a matter of personal faith here because they define political power, with specific posts reserved for the once dominant Maronite Christians, then the Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

The system, first constructed in 1943, emerged shaky but intact after the civil war. The fact that it no longer reflects demographic reality – Muslims had become the majority in Lebanon by the 1960s – makes all sects even more sensitive to conversion. Changing someone’s religious denomination affects factions’ numbers, and their influence.

Many foreign evangelists in Lebanon – even with the post-civil war resurgence they are believed to be fewer than 100 now – voiced bafflement that what they see as offering good works, local religious establishments view as yet another means for the United States to subvert the region.

“I expect diplomats and people like that to be targets, not people doing this kind of work,” said Grant Porter, a friend of the Witheralls who delivered a eulogy Sunday.

“She was a girl just working upstairs in the clinic, and somebody decided to kill her,” he said in an interview. “Sometimes there is friction, but to take it to that level?”

Bishop George Kwaiter, archbishop for the Roman Catholic diocese, who has criticized the evangelist movement’s assertive efforts at conversion, said: “I think she was killed because she was preaching Christianity to Muslims.”

“She was in the habit of gathering the Muslim children of the quarter and preaching Christianity to them while dispensing food and toys and social assistance,” he said, and this upset the city’s Muslim hierarchy. “In these times, there are people in the Muslim community who don’t even want to hear the word ‘conversion.'”

The Reverend Sami Dagher, regional leader of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, which ran the clinic where Bonnie Witherall volunteered, denies that she did any proselytizing outside the clinic.

He sidesteps the general issue of conversion, however, saying the group merely seeks to expose people to the idea that Jesus Christ is their savior and let them decide for themselves.

But a somewhat more direct goal emerges amidst the Web site postings of the previous pastor and his wife, Darrell and Cheryl Phenicie, who were here when simmering Muslim resentment of missionary activities broke out into the open last year, but have since moved back to the United States.

“Dramatic conversions are being reported,” it says. “And nearly 600 women have received prenatal care and heard the good news of our compassionate Healer, Jesus Christ.”

The Web site goes on to say that “new believers” are being persecuted and asks church members to “Pray for a recent surge of persecution against the ministry in Sidon, Lebanon. The local ‘religious’ leaders have written about us falsely in the newspapers and preached against us in the city mosques.”

U.S. missionary work has a long history in Lebanon. Some of the country’s most influential institutions, like the American University of Beirut and its hospital, were founded in the mid-19th century by Presbyterian missionaries.

That first wave of American Protestant missionaries ultimately abandoned the idea of pushing conversion, concentrating instead on charitable works that would improve the lives of the recipients. But in the late 20th century missionary work took on an increasingly evangelistic bent, and by the 1990s fundamentalist Christians put a renewed emphasis on sending young missionaries overseas to preach. Operation Mobilization USA, the group that dispatched the Witheralls to Lebanon, was one such effort.

With Christian dominance diluted after the 1975 civil war, the greater numbers of Muslims were demanding an increasing political voice and the Christian population in Sidon dwindled. Some Muslim clerics grew suspicious of American evangelists during Israel’s occupation of South Lebanon, starting in 1982, when the missionaries used the area to set up a television broadcast that emphasized Christian proselytizing. That suspicion grew to outright animosity this year when prominent evangelists in the United States voiced support for Israel and denigrated Islam.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Wednesday November 27, 2002.
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