Interview: Missionary Work in Iraq

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As the war in Iraq moves into its next phase, Christian missionaries are moving forward with their own battle plans: to distribute humanitarian aid and spread the gospel to the region's Muslims. TIME's Broward Liston spoke with Albert Mohler, the boyish president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and reigning intellectual of the evangelical movement in the U.S., about the challenges facing missionaries venturing into potentially hostile territory:

To many, the image of American missionaries lining the Iraq- Jordan border, preparing to distribute food, clothing, tents and medical supplies as soon as the shooting dies down, looks eerily like a second invasion. Or at least a profoundly destabilizing force, an army prepared to act on the inflammatory words lobbed between evangelical Christian ministers and anti-American Muslim clerics.

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That's a false impression, says Albert Mohler. The missionaries, he says, whose aim is partly humanitarian, see themselves as part of a tradition dating back 2000 years, to the mission that brought Jesus to Jerusalem. It was a journey that provoked unrest, frightened authority and led Christ to the cross, but ultimately, Christians believe, delivered a life-saving message to the world.

Much of the (real or potential) tension facing missionaries, he says, arises out secular thinkers' and Christians' opposing views on religious conversion. "The secular world tends to look at Islam as a function of ethnicity," says Mohler, "which means seeking to convert these people to Christianity is an insult to them. But Christianity is a trans-ethnic faith, which understands that Christianity is not particular to or captured by any ethnicity, but seeks to reach all persons.

"The secular world tends to look at Iraq and say, well, it's Muslim, and that's just a fact, and any Christian influence would just be a form of Western imperialism. The Christian has to look at Iraq and see persons desperately in need of the gospel. Compelled by the love and command of Christ, the Christian will seek to take that gospel in loving and sensitive, but very direct, ways to the people of Iraq."

And despite any controversy surrounding their work, says Mohler, what the missionaries are doing in Iraq is completely in line with the traditional role of Christian relief agencies. "Christian organizations have been involved in organized relief efforts throughout the history of the United States. You can look at almost every significant military endeavor and find precedence for Christians being actively involved in relief efforts," and often, he adds, actively invited to solicit. If you went to Afghanistan today you would note that (missionary group) Samaritan's Purse is largely responsible for setting up hospitals in the region, without a great deal of controversy.

"The classic example would be the rebuilding of Europe and Japan after WWII," says Mohler, "situations analogous to Iraq in terms of regime change and a subsequent rebuilding effort." He finds the comparison to Japan particularly meaningful because Douglas MacArthur, as the de facto ruler of post-war Japan, introduced Western concepts of religious freedom and tolerance that were entirely new to the country. It's a model Mohler hopes will succeed in Iraq. While missionaries will evangelize, he says, victory will come not in the form of conversions, but in the introduction of religious freedom into what he calls "the crescent of Islam."

"No one is going to flip a switch and make Iraq a Christian nation. America is not a Christian nation; it's a mission field. Conversion can't come at the point of a gun. I think this is a true test, in a post-modern, post Cold War age, of how America is going to establish a model for the recovery of freedom. Religious freedom has to be at the center and foundation of that freedom. If Iraq were to be established in a way that religious freedom was honored, it would stand out from its neighbors in the area."

"It would be an appalling tragedy if America were to lead this coalition and send young American men and women into battle, to expend such military effort, to then leave in place a regime that would lack respect for religious liberty. I think one of the major Christian concerns, and one of my personal concerns, is to see religious liberty, religious freedom," take a prominent position in "the vision of freedom that America holds up to the world.

Still, there remains the question of just how successful the evangelizing will be.

"I don't think we can answer that. Very honestly, Christian efforts have found Islamic regions to be very resistant. I would not expect that in the Islamic world there's going to be any immediate receptivity to organized Christian efforts. I think this situation calls for great wisdom and responsibility on the part of Christian organizations, as well as a full measure of conviction. I think it's going to be a very interesting process to watch."