Franklin Graham stirred controversy this week by announcing that his charity, Samaritan's Purse, would work in post-war Iraq. But he is far from alone.
A newly released survey of evangelical Christian leaders by the Ethics & Public Policy Center and Beliefnet reveals that 81% believe it is "very important" and 16% "somewhat important" to "evangelize Muslims in other countries." The survey showed that evangelical leaders feel an intense obligation to spread the gospel and help Muslims.
And these groups are putting their words into action: The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, America's largest Protestant denomination, plans to send several hundred American volunteers from Oklahoma, Georgia, and Texas to Iraq. They will provide food and shelter and try to help Iraqis "have true freedom in Jesus Christ." They've spent $125,000 so far on supplies alone. Last Sunday, Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, a 20,000-member congregation, held a live video uplink from Jordan with a Baptist relief worker to inspire the congregants. The Rev. Jack Graham, who is also president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said they are scouting relief work locations in southern Iraq.
The International Bible Society has just published a Scripture booklet especially for Iraqi refugees. Christians in America are being urged to spend 40 cents per booklet to print and ship them to Iraq. Last week, a missionary writing from Iraq on the group's website wrote: "I can hear jets flying over the town, and I hear explosions from the distance. There are still a few of us in town...we go out to visit and distribute tracts and the Jesus video. We are busy duplicating the video. We ran out of tracts and we need to print 10,000 more." World Concern, which says it cares for all people, regardless of religion, is sending volunteers and supplies to Iraq, to "seek appropriate ways to communicate the love of Christ in both word and deed." World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, which says its relief work in Iraq follows the "Biblical mandate to reach hopeless and hurting people in the name of Christ," is in Jordan at a border camp set up for Iraqi refugees. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham, told Beliefnet he was "poised and ready" to send workers from his relief operation, Samaritan's Purse, into Iraq as soon as the war is over. Seven are in Jordan, (more will arrive soon), with drinking water for 20,000 people, material to build tents for 4,000 families, and medical kits for 100,000 people. "As we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son," Graham said.
Those are only a few of the dozens of American Christian groups planning to help Iraqis. It's certainly true that in other countries these groups have provided incalculable practical humanitarian aid to desperate people. And most international groups say the war is creating a nightmarish humanitarian crisis. But given the volatile status of Iraq, why are evangelical Christian groups so urgently insistent upon helping right there, right now?
The answer is a mix of two factors. First, evangelicals believe Islam is a dangerous spiritual force, and the aftermath of the Iraq war gives them a chance to try to show Christianity is a better path. Second, Christians believe they are commanded by Jesus to feed the hungry and spread the gospel.
Evangelical hostility to Islam
The EPPC-Beliefnet survey of evangelical leaders found that 77% of the nation's 350 top evangelical leaders hold a negative view of Islam, and 70% believe it is a "religion of violence." In addition, only 17% said they believe Muslims and Christians pray to the same God. And despite President Bush's repeated statements since September 11, only 10% believe Islam is a "religion of peace."
While "welcoming Muslims into the American community" is "very important" to a little more than half of evangelical leaders, 52%, insisting on the "truth of the Gospel" is "very important" to 89%.
The survey's author, John Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron, says evangelicals see "opportunities" arising as a result of the war--as a way of "taming" Islam and giving Christianity a greater platform in the Middle East. And they don't believe they have anything to lose by evangelizing. "If there is going to be tension anyway," they reason, according to Green, "it's good to get these people saved."