Two leading evangelical Christian relief and missionary organizations say they have teams of workers poised to enter Iraq to address the physical and spiritual needs of its large Muslim population.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, and the Rev. Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse said Tuesday that workers are near the Iraq border in Jordan and are ready to go in as soon as it is safe. The relief and missionary work is certain to be closely watched because both Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention have been at the heart of controversial evangelical denunciations of Islam, the world's second-largest religion.
Both organizations said their priority will be to provide food, shelter, and other needs to Iraqis ravaged by recent war and years of neglect. But if the situation presents itself, they will also share their Christian faith in a country that's estimated to be 97 percent Muslim and about 1 percent Christian.
"We go where we have the opportunity to meet needs," said Ken Isaacs, international director of projects for Samaritan's Purse, located in Boone, N.C. "We do not deny the name of Christ. We believe in sharing him in deed and in word. We'll be who we are."
Mark Kelly, a spokesman for the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board, said $250,000 has already been spent to provide for immediate needs, such as blankets and baby formula. Much more will follow, along with a more overt spiritual emphasis.
"Conversations about spiritual things will come about as people ask about our faith," said Kelly, based in Richmond, Va. "It's not going to be like what you might see in other countries, where there's a preaching service held outside clinics and things like that."
Richard Cizik, vice president for governmental affairs of the National Association of Evangelicals, is urging caution for the two groups, as well as other evangelical organizations planning to go into Iraq.
"Evangelicals need to be sensitive to the circumstances of this country and its people," said Cizik, based in Washington. "If we are perceived as opportunists, we only hurt our cause. If this is seen as religious freedom for Iraq by way of gunboat diplomacy, is that helpful? I don't think so. If that's the perception, we lose."
Graham, the son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, has been less diplomatic about Islam than his father has been. Two months after the Sept. 11 attacks, Franklin Graham called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" during an interview on NBC, the television network. In his book published last year, The Name, Graham wrote that "The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith." He went on to say that "the two are different as lightness and darkness."
On the eve of the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis last year, the Rev. Jerry Vines, a former denomination president, told several thousand delegates that Islam's Allah is not the same as the God worshipped by Christians. "And I will tell you Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist," Vines said.
Widespread condemnation of those comments followed from other Protestant leaders as well as from Catholic and Jewish groups. The Graham and Vines statements even created a problem for President Bush, who has called Islam a "religion of peace."
In a written statement, Graham said: "As Christians, we love the Iraqi people, and we are poised and ready to help meet their needs. Our prayers are with the innocent families of Iraq, just as they are with our brave soldiers and leaders."
Isaacs said Samaritan's Purse has assembled a team of nine Americans and Canadians that includes veterans of war-relief projects in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Rwanda, and Somalia. The team includes a doctor, an engineer and a water specialist.
They will bring resources that include a system that can provide drinking water for up to 20,000 people, material to build temporary shelters for more than 4,000 families, packages of household items for 5,000 families, and kits designed to meet the general medical needs of 100,000 people for three months.
So far there's no budget for the effort because it's so fluid, said Jeremy Blume, a Samaritan's Purse spokesman, but donors are being asked to help. A Southern Baptist fund-raising drive is under way to help underwrite the cost, Kelly said. Both groups said only private donations have funded their plans thus far, with no government assistance in the works.
Southern Baptists, representing a denomination of 16 million members, have workers in Jordan waiting to help refugees. But so far, few refugees have arrived, perhaps because it's still too difficult for much of the population to maneuver between warring armies on their way to the border, Kelly said.
Baptist Men, a national organization devoted to providing disaster relief work, has promised to send volunteers from the United States "on a moment's notice," Kelly said.
As soon as they gain access to northern Iraq, Baptist teams will go in, Kelly said, with plans of feeding up to 10,000 or more people a day.
"The hope is that as the war front moves and the situation in the outlying areas improves, we'll be able to send mobile teams in.
"Our understanding of relief ministries is that any time you give a cup of cold water in the name of Jesus, you've shared God's love in a real physical way. That also raises the question as to why you did that. When people ask you, you explain that it's because of the love of God that has been poured out into my life and I have a deep desire that you know that same love as well."
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Baptist Press also reported this week on Southern Baptist plans to lend aid and relief in Iraq.
For more coverage on the current conflict, commentary and thought on just war, or Christian debate, see our CTWar in Iraq archive.
A downloadable Bible study on the implications of war with Iraq is available at CurrentIssuesBibleStudy.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Recent Christianity Today articles and commentary on the current war with Iraq include:
Relief Agencies Prepare to Help Iraqi Refugees | Meanwhile Christians in Baghdad fear the worst. (March 26, 2003)
Weblog: Newspapers Miss the Real End-Times Story | Evangelicals believe this is the end, say papers. Oh really? (March 25, 2003)
CT Classic: The Ethics of Desert Storm | What Christianity Today said during the U.S.'s first war with Iraq. (March 25, 2003)
War Isn't Being Waged From the Pulpit | Most clergy avoid blanket statements on war. (March 24, 2003)
CT Classic: War Cry | As 1991's Gulf War began, a Christianity Today editorial said the church's best weapon was tearful prayer. (March 24, 2003)
What George Bush's Favorite Devotional Writer Says About War | "War is the most damnably bad thing," wrote Oswald Chambers. (March 24, 2003)
Peacemakers Seek to Show War from Point of View of Iraqi Civilians | Six Christian Peacemaker Team members remain in Iraq as bombs drop. (March 21, 2003)
Speaking Out: Where Do We Go From Here? | Now that the bombs are falling, we'll need to repair Iraq—and our nation's moral standing. (March 21, 2003)
CT Classic: Weeping over Baghdad | Desert Storm cost Iraq thousands of lives. At its conclusion, a Christianity Today editorial called for the church to deal with the living souls that remained. (March 21, 2003)
War Could Reduce Holy Land's Christian Presence | Palestinian bishop fears current hostilities could continue a trend that sees Christians forced out of the area altogether. (March 21, 2003)
Weblog: Will War Breed Hate Crimes Against Muslims, Christians, or Both? | Plus: PCUSA court criticizes leader but dismisses charges, and other stories from online sources around the world. (March 20, 2003)
Standing for Peace on the Eve of War | Christian group seeks nonviolent solution in Iraq. (March 12, 2003)
Weapons of the Spirit | Regardless of their positions on Iraq, Christians have much they can do. (Feb. 25, 2003)
Just War in Iraq | Sometimes going to war is the charitable thing to do. (Dec. 10, 2002)
Keeping Their Heads Down | Vital but dwindling Christians face many pressures. (Nov. 8, 2002)
Bully Culprit | Can a pre-emptive strike against the tyrant of Baghdad be justified? (Sept. 30, 2001)
Is Attacking Iraq Moral? | Christian leaders disagree, too. (September 4, 2002)