100 U.S. soldiers to frontline in freeing Burnhams
Philippine President Gloria Arroyo apparently doesn't want Weblog reporting on kidnapped American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham anymore. Too bad.

U.S. Special Forces troops are already in the Philippines assisting and training the military there in the fight against the militant Muslim Abu Sayyaf Group, which is holding the Burnhams. In February, however, at least 100 more American soldiers are arriving, and they won't be staying in training camps. The Philippine government is allowing them to go to the frontline, though it insists the American soldiers won't be allowed to fight. "Going to the frontline does not necessarily mean that they will be the ones going in direct contact with the enemy," said Gen. Diomedio Villanueva. "You aren't going to see American troops on the ground hunting the Abu Sayyaf. This is taking a more active support role for the Philippine military."

Congressman Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.), who visited the Philippines last week to support the Burnhams, says the "no fighting" rule isn't serious. "We'll see what happens when the trainers are on the ground," he tells The Wichita Eagle. "You may see some on-the-job training."

"I don't believe there's anything mysterious about it at all," Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday about American operations in the Philippines. But clearly, if American troops are going to the frontlines, they're going to be involved in combat. It's not like the Abu Sayyaf is only going to shoot at Filipinos. And Philippine military officials are already acknowledging this. "It could happen that there could be some accidents or they could be engaged by some terrorists," Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan said in a television interview. "We certainly don't want that to happen, that they will be engaged [in combat], but it could happen. That is a possibility we are now discussing."

CNN reports that the 100 soldiers are just the beginning. "The U.S. military contingent in the area could expand to 500 troops, among them 100 Green Berets, and include up to 10 transport and combat helicopters as well as C-130 planes," the news agency says, citing U.S. officials.

Why is the Philippine government so opposed to U.S. troops fighting? The Wichita Eagle's Alan Bjerga, who's doing a fantastic job covering the Burnhams' rescue, has a helpful and insightful article explaining the government's understandable resistance. "Remember, the Philippines was a U.S. colony for 50 years, and we've only closed our military bases there in the last decade," says Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There's a real sensitivity to the return of U.S. troops." But that's not all. Bjerga reports U.S. support of corrupt dictator Ferdinand Marcos didn't help matters. And direct U.S. involvement against the Abu Sayyaf could foster anti-American sentiments, strengthening other terrorist organizations in the Philippines.

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The Wall Street Journal has a good overview of how and why the American government position on freeing the Burnhams has changed, but the article is available only to subscribers. The basic idea is that the Bush administration didn't want to promote the Burnhams' plight, since "giving the case a high profile would only make the hostages appear more important in the eyes of their captors, decreasing the chances the radicals would let them go." But now officials feel they have waited too long for the Philippine military to free the missionaries, and it's time for more direct action.

Stateside, friends of the Burnhams are in the middle of an 11-day fast for the missionaries, which will end on January 17—Gracia's birthday. A national prayer vigil is also scheduled for the 17th.

Meanwhile, Martin's sister, Cheryl Spicer, is returning to the Philippines with her husband, Walter, and their five children. Like the Burnhams, they are also missionaries in the country (as were Martin's parents before their retirement). "We feel pretty safe going back," Cheryl told the Eagle. "We'll be paying attention to our surroundings and aware of any embassy warnings of places not to go. We'll be careful."

Other stories

It pays to be pure:
Secularists attack (and Christians respond):
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  • A futile bid to burn away free thought | Born again Christians! Why do they always make me think that it was a waste of hot water and towels, their being born the first time? (Dennis O'Donnell, The Scotsman)
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Religion after 9/11:
Church and state:
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  • Mormon church faces costly lawsuit | Twelve plaintiffs seek more than $120 million for alleged abuses (Associated Press)
  • A shepherd and his flock | Cardinal Bernard F. Law and other church officials, in a test of their pastoral responsibilities, failed to protect the most impressionable members of his flock from the depredations of the pedophile priest John Geoghan (Editorial, The Boston Globe)
  • Bible stolen from parked car | "We hope that when the person reads the contents, they have some conscience and return it to the owner," say police (The Belfast Telegraph)
Church life:
  • Holy Smokes! | Study finds people who attend church regularly are far less likely to smoke than nonchurch goers (HealthScoutNews)
  • Brushes with death | Scientists validate near-death experiences (Good Morning America)
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