Should Christians Convert Muslims?
By David Van Biema
A new flock of missionaries has launched a campaign to take the Gospel to Islamic countries. But will they inspire more backlash than belief?
She wasn’t a Muslim, but she would do for now. Last March, at just about the time American troops were massing outside Baghdad, she shuffled, dressed in a dark burqa, into a cramped schoolroom in the New York City borough of Queens. The class she was addressing was organized by the U.S. Center for World Mission and packed with eager evangelical Christian students wanting to learn how to be missionaries in a foreign country. The black-clad “Shafira” was gamely trying to explain her faith.
“It is not in the heart of all the Muslims to have violence,” she said in broken English, alluding immediately to Sept. 11. “So sorry that people having dying. I’m wanting peace for my children. I’m thinking you wanting peace. It’s the same.” She listed Islam’s five pillars of faith and reminded her audience that holy war is not among them. “We have a lot in common,” she said, but she did wonder about the Trinity: “God Father plus God Mary equals God Son?”
A student, thrilled at the opportunity to explain, jumped in. After listening patiently, Shafira peeled back her garments and admitted that “I am not a true Muslim.” Hardly. In fact, she was a longtime Christian missionary in Muslim lands. She had been hired to explain at several of 150 annual “Perspectives” classes how such evangelism should be done. She gave her real name. (Throughout this article, for the safety of missionaries working in potentially hostile environments or returning to them, pseudonyms are used. They will be indicated on first usage by quotation marks. Many locations will also be omitted.)
Over the next three hours, “Barbara,” minus her burqa, dispensed lists of comparisons between Jesus and Muhammad (“Jesus arose from the dead and is alive. Muhammad is dead.”) and of dos and don’ts of ministering to Muslims. (Do listen to their story. Don’t argue about Israel.) She projected a statement by U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft on a screen: “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.” After his comment was publicized in late 2001, Ashcroft said it referred to terrorists and not to mainstream Muslims, but the point seemed lost on her. “Islam is the terrorist,” Barbara asserted. “Muslims are the victim.” The class ended in prayer. “We mourn the loss of life” in Iraq, someone said. Added Barbara: “We pray that the weapon of mass destruction, Islam, be torn down. Lord, we declare that your blood is enough to forgive every single Muslim. It is enough.”
For 21 months now, Americans have been engaged in a crash course on Islam, its geography and its followers. It is not a subject we were previously interested in, but 9/11 left no choice, and the U.S. military in two countries continues its on-the-job training in sheiks and ayatullahs, Sunni customs and Shi’ite factionalism. Yet there is one group that has been thinking” ”passionately” ”about Muslims for more than a decade. Its army is weaponless, its soldiers often unpaid, its boot camps places like the Queens classroom. It has no actual connection with the U.S. government (except possibly to unintentionally muddy America’s image). But in the past few months, its advance forces have been entering the still-smoldering battlefield of Iraq, as intent on molding its people’s future as the conventional American troops already in place.
Not for a century has the idea of evangelizing Islam awakened such fervor in conservative Christians. Touched by Muslims’ material and (supposed) spiritual needs, convinced that they are one of the great “unreached megapeoples” who must hear the Gospel before Christ’s eventual return, Evangelicals have been rushing to what has become the latest hot missions field. Figures from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, suggest that the number of missionaries to Islamic countries nearly doubled between 1982 and 2001″ ”from more than 15,000 to somewhere in excess of 27,000.
Approximately 1 out of every 2 is American, and 1 out of every 3 is Evangelical. Says George Braswell Jr., a missions professor at the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary: “We’re having more now than probably ever before go out to people like Muslims.” Sept. 11 appears only to have fueled the impulse.
Yet this boom has coincided with mounting restrictions on missionary efforts by the regimes of Islamic-majority countries and with swelling anti-Western militancy. The resulting tensions have sometimes erupted tragically: the past two years have seen the arrest and imprisonment of two American missionaries in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan and the apparently religiously motivated murders of four more in Yemen and Lebanon. The botched bombing last month of a Dutch-German missionary family in Tripoli, Lebanon, suggests the danger is not abating. Says Stan Guthrie, author of the book Missions in the Third Millennium: “People are beginning to count the costs. If you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, you could be killed. Missionaries have always considered the possibility, but now it’s a lot more real.”
Such fears, plus the recent entry of evangelical missionaries into Afghanistan and Iraq on the heels of American troops, have raised other questions. The new arrivals mean well: in addition to the Christian Gospel, which they consider their most precious gift, they have channeled millions of dollars in aid and put in countless hours of charitable work. But some fieldworkers for more liberal Christian organizations claim that some of the more aggressive evangelical tactics can put all religious charities at risk, as when the Taliban, angered by missionary activities two years ago, shut down every Christian aid group in Kabul. Muslim critics accuse missionaries of lying about their identities and their faith to achieve their goals. And as the tensions between Islam and the West continue to boil, some familiar with the Middle East have begun asking whether the missionaries, who love Muslims but despise Islam, are the sort of nonappointed goodwill ambassadors the U.S. really needs in a region dense with the rhetoric of holy war. Says Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister who was director of the National Council of Churches’ Middle East office in the 1980s: “Sincerity isn’t the issue, or commitment to one’s faith. It is just that the region is at a pivotal and volatile juncture, and it is arguably not the time for groups coming in, like someone with a lighted match into a room full of explosives, wearing Jesus on their sleeves.”
Just how large a proportion of Christian religious workers fit that profile? One reason it is difficult to know is that zeal is often tempered after some time spent in-country. Two centuries ago, in a similar burst of enthusiasm, such mainline denominations as the Presbyterians and the Methodists sent thousands of missionaries to the Middle East. Like the current crop, they started eager for conversions. But over time they settled for a more modest agenda that obeyed local antiproselytizing laws and focused on building educational and charitable institutions and providing humanitarian aid. Such groups still constitute the major visible missionary presence in the area, and they enjoy fruitful and respectful, if circumscribed, relationships with local regimes and populations. Even within the current evangelical wave, there is a broad range of methods and attitudes. Some missionaries, while maintaining the right to evangelize, primarily uphold the mainline tradition of funneling money and time to the Muslim needy. Others, from a distance, flood whole populations with Christian TV and radio, tracts by the tens of thousands and offers of correspondence courses, hoping that a few seeds will take root. In the dozens of Muslim countries that deny “religious worker” visas, ever more Evangelicals take secular jobs to enter less obtrusively. Many show exquisite sensitivity, sharing their Lord only with people whose intimate friendships they have earned.
But there remains a troubling contingent of indeterminate size that combines religious arrogance with political ignorance. Its activities would not necessarily raise eyebrows on the average American street corner: handing out cassettes or tracts, inviting passersby to a movie about Jesus’ life, talking about Christ to children while distributing toys. But in societies in which state and mosque are closely intertwined, in which defamation of Islam is a crime and conversion out of it can invite vigilante violence, the more audacious missionaries are engaged, intentionally or not, in provocation, and their actions are debated even within the evangelical community. Some experts see their clumsiness as the product of nondenominational churches lacking the resources for proper training programs. Others suggest that the culprits are “short termers” who don’t stay in the region long enough to witness the cycles of retribution their confrontational styles can touch off. Says Robert Seiple, the State Department’s Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom until 2000 and himself an Evangelical: “There is a lot more good than bad. The major denominations get it right more than wrong. But what I discovered is that well-intended people have in many, many cases eroded the message they were trying to communicate through inappropriate methodologies. Persecution results, and there are times you wish they had stayed home.” “Josh” is a new missionary, but not a foolish one. “I would never do anything stupid like blatant preaching on the street or going up to someone I don’t know and handing out literature,” he says. But at age 24 and after only eight months on the job, he occasionally gets antsy. “I’m impatient by nature,” he says, “so maybe expectations are a problem.” The son of missions workers with the Pentecostal Assemblies of God denomination, he grew up abroad, but a palm-bedecked Arab capital is his first solo long-term posting. He strolls its working-class neighborhoods on errands for his day job as a youth worker with its small Christian community and wonders whom he will talk to today. He enjoys sharing Christ with cabbies, in part because their English is better than his beginner’s Arabic. He points out three young men in a carpentry shop as part of his target audience: “They’re my age,” he says. “The younger generation is influenced much more by the West, and they’re searching.” Josh has his up moments, as when a neighborhood boy complimented him, saying, “You’re a good Muslim … I mean Christian.” And there are times when he feels “overwhelmed. I’m just one person” ”what can I do to help?” But each morning he is reminded of why he is here. The muezzin’s first call to prayer rings out at 4 a.m. And pray Josh does. “I pray for the people responding,” he says. “I pray that as they go to mosque, Jesus would somehow be revealed to them. I pray against that call” ”that it would not affect their souls.” He prays he may help lift “this totally oppressive spiritual atmosphere.”
In the broadest theological sense, Josh and other emissaries of Christ are answering Jesus’ call in the Gospel According to Matthew, known as the Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” Since the Middle Ages, missionaries” ”revered by some, reviled by others” ”have been among history’s great cross-cultural pollinators.
In the past century, as mainline Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. adopted a social gospel that stressed aiding the poor over preaching to the unenlightened, evangelizing at its purest fell to Evangelicals. Rare is the conservative Protestant church that doesn’t send its teens off on short-term mission trips or play host to a stream of missionaries on home leave, their stories full of exotic places and changed hearts. Although they would never admit it, the returnees are Evangelicalism’s paragons, making its philosophy of relentless outreach their lives’ work. Says Beth Streeter, a Moraga, Calif., health-care consultant who left on a short mission trip to Egypt with her husband and two young children shortly after Sept. 11: “When you believe at your core that the love of Jesus Christ really is the best gift to humankind, you want to find ways and places for people to hear that for themselves. Sometimes it drives us places that can be awkward and uncomfortable.”
Through the 1970s, the great missions fields were Latin America, where conservative Protestantism competed with Catholicism for the hearts of the poor, and (for the more daring) Africa and the Iron Curtain countries. Gradually, however, the focus shifted. A missions strategist named Ralph Winter suggested in 1974 that Christians turn their attention from areas already exposed to Christ to “unreached people groups” who had never heard the Gospel. The plan held special allure for those who read literally another verse in Matthew suggesting that when every nation is reached, the long-awaited end times can commence. In 1989 Argentine-born evangelist Luis Bush pointed out that 97% of the unevangelized lived in a “window” between the 10th and 40th latitudes. This immense global slice, he explained, was disproportionately poor; the majority of its inhabitants “enslaved” by Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism and, ultimately, by Satan.
In a later paper, Bush urged Christians, “Put on the full armor of God and fight with the weapons of spiritual warfare.” (He has emphasized to Time that he did not mean military action.) Of Islam specifically, he wrote, “From its center in the 10/40 Window, Islam is reaching out energetically to all parts of the globe; in a similar strategy, we must penetrate (its) heart with the liberating truth of the gospel.” Many mustered themselves to the Window.
Only to find it closing. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, Islam is the most ferociously opposed to the straying of its flock. Shari’a law calls for the death penalty for those who convert to other religions, and although the penalty is not binding in most Muslim-majority states, persecution is common. This alone would not retard missions work. Most evangelists accept it as a cost of sharing faith. What did slow their efforts was a more prosaic measure: the gradual elimination by most Muslim countries of professional “religious worker” visas. Established organizations built around salaried missionary lifers found themselves hamstrung.
So they were supplemented with something more maneuverable. The approach was called tentmaking, after the Apostle Paul, who supported himself at that trade while spreading word of the risen Christ through the Mediterranean. Like Paul, the new missionaries did not hang up an evangelist’s shingle. They took day jobs” ”often in aid and development or other areas in which the host country lacked expertise” ”and preached unofficially. The possibilities are endless” ”evangelical websites feature references to mechanical engineering in “a large Arab city,” computer sales in “an Islamic country” and business teaching in Kyrgyzstan” ”and missionary-recruitment seminars can sound like job bazaars. At a small Tennessee Bible church, a mission facilitator assured his listeners that “if you’re a native speaker and can fog up a mirror, you can teach” English abroad. He projected a cartoon on a screen to show the advantages of being unofficial: a man wearing a turban and dagger halts a standard-issue, briefcase-toting missionary at a striped barrier while another Westerner carrying a toolbox strolls blithely through, toward a mosque in the middle distance.
“Henry” and “Sarah” practice a kind of evangelism that might satisfy the staunchest agnostic. In the early 1980s they arrived in the North African country where they serve as missionary-team leaders. “We didn’t want to run through, do our thing and preach,” says Sarah. “We wanted to live.” They founded an adventure-travel business and made friends. They talked sports and taxes and children with their neighbors, went camping with them and gathered with them on Muslim feast days. They didn’t hide their faith, but they didn’t press it on others, so when a friend’s friend who had taken a Christian correspondence course approached them on behalf of his family, they shared Christ on his terms. “They pursued us,” Henry insists. The two clans grew close and still are; eventually several of the Muslims embraced Christ. To tentmaking theorists, this is “relationship evangelism.” Henry prefers to speak of the difference in connotation between two Arabic words, tansir and tabshir. “Tansir means to coerce people to change their religion,” he explains. “Tabshir means to share, to be a witness.”
At its most subtle, tentmaking embodies St. Francis’ edict: “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” (“Be someone’s friend, not an Amway salesman,” paraphrases one veteran.) But the sometimes clandestine status can breed bad habits. Visa bans turn many Evangelicals, usually straightforward to a fault, into truth stretchers, if only at the customs desk. They use encrypted e-mail and code words or smuggle Bibles. “Some,” says a Christian minister in Morocco, “seem to have been inspired by the book of James, verse 007.” It is not really their fault, says the leader of one mission, contending, “It should not be dangerous for a person to move to a different country and, to use the words of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, ‘manifest his belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.'” Yet a classroom scene at Columbia International University in South Carolina reported last year by Mother Jones magazine demonstrates an unnerving ethical elasticity. “Did Jesus ever lie?” asks a lecturer. His class replies, “No.” “But did Jesus raise his hand and say, ‘I swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?'” Again, 20 voices call out, “No!” (The instructor confirms the quote but says that it was taken out of context.)
Then there are the apparent attempts by some missionaries to camouflage their faith as a kind of Islam: inviting prospective converts to “Jesus mosques,” publicly reciting the Muslim creed, “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his prophet”; or allowing themselves to be regarded as Muslim mystics, or Sufis. Such techniques are rationalized as part of “contextualization,” the necessary presentation of new ideas in a familiar idiom. But Ibrahim Hooper, of the Washington advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations, claims, “They know it won’t work to just say, ‘We want you to become Christian, and here’s why.’ So they have to pretend to be Muslims.” Some Evangelicals are also wary. Jesus mosque “blurs the issue,” says a missionary in Jordan. “If Muslims are coming to Christ, they really need to know what they’re coming to.”
Some of the secrecy may be unnecessary. David English, executive director of a tentmaking assistance agency called Global Opportunities, points out that even in Saudi Arabia, one of the more restrictive Muslim-majority nations, “it has been clarified that if in the normal course of your work people ask about your faith, you’re perfectly free to talk about it and explain it. There’s a law against conversion” ”they’re still not playing fair” ”but that much is O.K.” Other experts say local leaders will often tolerate informal preaching as the price for Western expertise in other fields. Says Daryl Anderson of the Evangelical Free Church of America, whose missionaries ply primarily the health and information-technology fields: “We’re creative in finding where the government itches, so we can scratch it. And depending on the ideological purity of the government agency, we have a certain freedom to be open about our faith.”
Such informal understandings, however, can evaporate when a regime cracks down or a missionary becomes more assertive. In August 2001, Afghanistan’s Taliban arrested Heather Mercer, 24, and Dayna Curry, 29, who had traveled from a Texas church to work for a group called Shelter Germany in Kabul. During their three-month incarceration, subsequent rescue and visit with President Bush in the Rose Garden, the press referred to them as “Christian aid workers,” implying that they were engaged solely in humanitarian ministry and that their jailers’ claim that they were proselytizing was false.
In their book Prisoners of Hope, however, Mercer and Curry wrote of initiating Christian prayer with Muslims, urging them to listen to evangelistic broadcasts (in one case providing the radio) and showing at least two families a film on Jesus. “We understood that the Taliban prohibited non-Muslims from sharing their faith with Afghans,” the women stated. But they claimed that this violated international norms, and wrote, “We believe the Afghans” ”like all people” ”should at least have the opportunity to hear about the teachings of Christ if they choose.” To Time, Mercer said, “I look forward to the day when the people of Afghanistan, and those of nations like it, have the freedom to choose whom they follow” ”the freedom of religion and conscience.”
Such sentiments are noble enough. But the women’s acts were unpopular with a spectrum of Kabul aid groups running from secular workers to fellow Evangelicals. “They broke every rule in the book,” says Seiple, the former State Department religious-freedom ambassador. “They were women in a patriarchal society, didn’t know the language (well), didn’t know the culture and were counseled against doing this by other Christians.” Says “Kay,” a 13-year veteran of evangelical missions in another Muslim capital who reports that the incident eventually hampered her own work: “I’m sorry that they suffered, but they just didn’t think. They did not project their idealism to its farthest conclusion.”
Intra-Christian recrimination also arose around the shocking death last November of Bonnie Witherall, 31, a nurse’s assistant at the Christian and Missionary Alliance pre-natal clinic in Sidon, Lebanon, a facility funded partly by Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse organization. One morning as she arrived to open the clinic, an unknown assailant shot her three times in the head. Her murder may have been simple anti-Americanism, since it followed one of Osama bin Laden’s bellicose edicts. But the New York Times reported that members of the Alliance” ”which flew a banner emblazoned with the Arabic for “And Jesus said to them: I am the bread of life, and who accepts me will never go hungry”” ”had received threats after local imams denounced them for allegedly handing out Christian literature and evangelizing to Muslim youth.
Such overtures are legal in Lebanon but are regarded by both Muslims and some Christian leaders as threats to the fragile peace among the country’s sects. Thus the local Catholic Archbishop, while condemning the crime, felt it necessary to announce, “We don’t accept this kind of preaching. We reject it totally.”
“Sam,” 46, recalls the day Israeli soldiers spotted his white Citroen van on the shoulder of a back road outside the West Bank town of Nablus and, hearing the murmuring behind its closed curtains, concluded they had stumbled on a nest of suicide bombers. At gunpoint, the American exited his vehicle and explained that the six Palestinians with him were a clandestine Christian Bible-study group avoiding the prying eyes of their neighbors. “They are in danger,” he told the baffled soldiers” ””in danger of being killed.” Sam claims to have led more than 100 Palestinians to Christ but says that it is they who are heroic, not he. Some of the converts, say their co-believers and local diplomats, paid for their faith with arrests, beatings and torture at the hands of Palestinian forces. The same sources report that one man was then turned over to Fatah militiamen, who killed him.
Paul Marshall, of the human-rights group Freedom House, says that although conversion is a crime in some Muslim-majority countries, “the biggest problem is that somebody else, a family member or local vigilante, will kill you, and the state will not intervene.” A 2001 study prepared for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board by a strategy coordinator for “unreached people groups” in Africa’s Horn describes his experience in a country where, he claims, “the majority of believers in Jesus Christ were systematically hunted down and martyred.” Such perils support the missionary argument that some Muslims remain in the fold less out of faith than out of fear. But the persecution poses for evangelists an additional and potentially embarrassing problem of relative risk, given that (notwithstanding the four recent deaths) converts are in far greater jeopardy than those who brought them to Christ.
Conversion is an act of free will, and the Muslims know the risks. But one must share the faith of Wally Rieke, candidate coordinator for the agency Serving in Mission, to accept his observation that converts’ “security and their care is dependent on the Lord, and not on us. If it was dependent on us, we would have a lot of people in trouble.” Similarly, the Baptist report’s “finding” says that “missionaries need spiritual toughness so that when the fruits of their witness are required to walk through the fire, the missionary does not automatically attempt to rescue them.” It continues: “To avoid persecution is to hamper the growth of the kingdom of God.” Missionaries also face charges of neglectful carelessness regarding reprisals they sometimes bring down on pre-existing Christian churches and nonevangelistic aid groups. Says Lamin Sanneh, a Muslim convert to Catholicism who teaches the history of world Christianity at Yale: “They come in, don’t report to the local churches, stir up a hornet’s nest and then quit town when the going gets tough. Why start a controversy if you’re not there to face the brunt of it?” Seiple notes that after Curry’s and Mercer’s arrest in Afghanistan, “all of the other Christian organizations were expelled until the Taliban fell.”
For “Robert,” the days of waiting appeared to be over. For months the globetrotting evangelist had kept a low profile, waiting for his latest chosen mission field, Iraq, to open up. He had lived quietly in a nearby capital, referring to Iraq by a code name. But after Baghdad’s liberation, Robert was ready to roll. He planned to enter Iraq with a secular humanitarian team” ”a kind of traveling tentmaker” ”but assumed that his workers could come in later on their own, printing up Arabic-language tracts in anticipation. Not all missionaries supported the Iraq war, but Robert identified personally with George W. Bush. “Something you must understand,” Robert e-mailed, “is that diplomacy does not work with Satan.” He realizes that interjecting an uncompromising gospel at so sensitive a time and place may provoke hostility. But he sees that as an inevitable consequence. “If Satan’s armor is pierced,” he wrote, “that fissure will be violently contested at every point and turn.” When Christ is proclaimed in Iraq, he predicted, there would be “riots.” But after all, he explained, his mandate “is to turn the world upside down.”
It seems worth asking, however, whether that is a mandate with which Americans in general care to be identified. Missionaries often complain of suffering from an overall Muslim perception of Americans as purveyors of trash culture and libertinism. But with the newly aggressive wave of Evangelicals and the newly sensitive situation in the Middle East, the shoe may be on the other foot: the missionaries may actually affect the way the Muslim world understands America.
Much was made of Franklin Graham’s strange triple role as Islam basher (“a very evil and wicked religion”), Bush Administration favorite (he preached a Good Friday service at the Pentagon) and would-be provisioner of aid and the Gospel to the newly liberated nation. But Graham is just part of the Iraqi missionary wave, made up not only of nonproselytizing mainline charities but also of evangelical groups like his. Some offer only material aid; others aid plus the Good News. Others such as the International Bible Society and Discipling a Whole Nation (dawn) will concentrate solely on spreading God’s word. Not for decades has Evangelicalism enjoyed such an Iraqi beachhead. dawn’s Rich Haynie says that to the extent that the Allied bombardment induced Muslims to question their god, “we could say that the war was a ripeness moment.”
This sort of language perturbs Wake Forest’s Kimball, who recently wrote the book When Religion Becomes Evil. “This is an area that lives with a history of crusades and in the shadow of colonialism,” he says. “The image of an overwhelming military power coming in already provokes major questions about deeper U.S. intentions. If you add an aggressive missionary presence, it will be easy to see this as a kind of American Christian triumphalism.” Says Azzam Tamimi, director of the London-based Institute of Islamic Political Thought: “Wherever I go, people say, ‘Haven’t you heard about American missionaries in Jordan waiting to go into Iraq?’ These are educated people; under normal circumstances, the missionaries would not be a big deal, but now people find it very difficult to believe this is not a crusade against Islam on the part of the Bush Administration.”
Evangelicals assert again and again that their message is based in love. They are far better informed and more actively concerned than the average American citizen about the Islamic world’s material needs, and their desire to share Christ springs in the main from a similarly generous impulse. Claims that Christian aid groups engage in charity as a “cover” for proselytizing do a disservice to the sometimes heroic humanitarian efforts by workers who believe that Christians should heed not just Jesus’ message of salvation but also his example as a feeder and a healer. Yet there should be no question that while most evangelical missionaries love Muslims, they hope to replace Islam. Some cringed at Graham’s “evil and wicked” description, but their critique was more about tone than substance. A few would suggest that only parts of Islam, and not its whole, are misguided. But most would subscribe to Luis Bush’s generalization about Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism: “Satan wants to keep people as miserable as possible for as long as possible.”
Clearly, this ideology is at odds with President Bush’s statements that Islam is a religion of peace, his visit to a Washington, D.C., mosque and his invitation to prominent Muslims to break their Ramadan fast at the White House. Sufficiently amplified, it could also presumably complicate American efforts to bolster moderate Islam in the Middle East. The Administration, however, does not see it that way. Government officials admit the existence of a few “cowboys,” but by and large, says one, missionaries “are often helping people, and not simply because they want to convert them,” and Muslims are happy for the aid. During discussion of Graham’s role in Iraq, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development noted to a reporter for the Beliefnet website that the government could not in any case control private charitable organizations. And a senior Administration official told Time that given the President’s close ties to the Christian right and his support of faith-based charity work, there was little chance the White House would discourage Christian aid organizations from going to Iraq.
The national debate over missionaries in Iraq has provoked a parallel discourse in the evangelical community, or rather, a new chapter in the ongoing dialogue about how best to deliver God’s word. At a gathering called last month by the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a Washington think tank, fervor and self-criticism mixed with a sense that Christianity’s overtures to Muslims might be entering a critical stage. “If we don’t get this right this time, we could become irrelevant,” worried one participant. Another, Serge Duss of the Christian charity World Vision International, asserted that the current controversy is “merely a blip on the screen.” The value of Christian missions would not be judged on the past few months but on the past half-century, during which, “because we love God and love our neighbor,” they have been “in the forefront of providing not only humanitarian aid but development, child health care, sanitation and communications.” At times, Duss said, “we have been able to be more overt about our Christian faith and at times not. And this,” he added, “is where we need to be very wise.”
And wisdom, in the end, comes from above. The muezzin has called two more times, and Josh, the first-time missionary, looks out his window at a stooped old woman in a billowing cloak, picking her way up a neighboring hill. The sight fires some kind of synapse in the place of convergence among his youthful eagerness, the desire to share, the impulse to meddle and the conviction that God’s providence will sort them out. “I see people like her, and I wonder, what’s her story?” he says. “What can I do to help her? When I feel the calling on my heart, I don’t see how it is possible to be here and not want to be able to speak to people, to love them, to get to know them. Every day I say to God: use me. Tell me what to do. Tell me what to say.”
With reporting by Perry Bacon Jr. and James Carney/Washington, Amanda Bower and Manya