2016-06-30
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."

    Robert Pyne, a theologian at the conservative Dallas Theological Seminary, says he sees evidence evangelicals do view the war as a kind of crusade. "They identify the American cause with this war as the cause of Christ." He read from a prayer making the rounds among evangelicals: "Let us be sending in 'prayer missiles,' 'cruise and scud prayers' to target enemy plans....We are praying that the enemy leaders become confused...that their entire system of attack fall apart and that these enemies would become of aware of the war Jesus has already fought for them."

    For some, the dislike of Islam grew out of personal experience. All over the world, Muslim militants persecute Christians--shooting them in Pakistan, making Christianity illegal in Saudi Arabia, and terrorizing them in Indonesia.

    "They're the ones declaring holy war, not us," says Richard Land, chief executive office of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "They're the ones trying to convert people by force. They're the ones killing people in name of religion--not us."

    In fact, in an interview last summer with Beliefnet, Franklin Graham said persecution by Muslims was one reason he so disliked Islam: "When our hospital got bombed in Sudan seven times and people were killed, it's the Muslim government that's trying to kill us, and you just can't say it any other way."

    Still, says Green, "There's a very big potential problem here." Whether true or not, "you have the image of a deeply religious president essentially giving Christians a green light to come into Iraq."

    Evangelical Christians believe they were commanded by Jesus to feed the poor--and spread the faith.

    Since 1990, the number of missionaries in Islamic countries has quadrupled, according to evangelical mission researchers, who estimate they have spoken to or given Christian material to at least 334 million people in that time.

    The root of the impulse to help, and convert, others is in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus told his disciples to "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 it should be noted that, as a result of this command, missionaries around the world subject themselves to great discomfort and in some cases physical danger to do what they see as a selfless act-providing humanitarian aid and saving someone's soul.

    Though they stress the importance of humanitarian deeds, they tend to view them as linked to their spiritual mission.

    "Southern Baptists have been known as people who don't just talk their faith but walk the walk, too," says Wendy Norvelle, associate vice-president for Southern Baptist relations. "We absolutely respect the people of Iraq, and providing aid for them is not dependent on their coming to believe like we believe."

    On the other hand, she adds, "When we do this, people ask us, 'why?' Then the opportunity arises, and we say, 'we are followers of Christ.' We believe the Gospel is for all people and that all people should have a choice in what they believe."

    One group, Frontiers, proudly describes its primary purpose this way: "Our passion is to glorify God by planting churches...among all Muslim peoples."

    The most popular evangelizing tool is "The Jesus Film." Translated into 811 languages, the 1979 film was made for $6 million by Campus Crusade for Christ founder Bill Bright with the financial backing of conservative oilman Nelson "Bunker" Hunt. In November 2001, after Christian relief workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer were rescued from Afghanistan, it was revealed that the Taliban arrested them for showing the Jesus Film.

    In fact, the call to evangelize is so powerful that some justify the use of deceptive means.

    One group, Global Opportunities, is organized specifically to help Christians evangelize through a practice called "tentmaking"--placing Christian professionals in secular jobs in foreign countries in order to proselytize. On its website, the group writes with advice about how to penetrate various parts of the world. The Arab Gulf region, the group says, is a "bonanza" for engineers because of the oil industry.

    Even Franklin Graham used some of these methods. According to Graham's biography, "Rebel With a Cause," during the last Gulf War, Samaritan's Purse went to Jordan under the banner "Operation Desert Save" with food and aid--and showed the Jesus Film at night until the International Red Cross complained. Graham then used the Dear Abby Any Servicemen campaign to send Arabic language Scripture tracts and New Testaments into Saudi Arabia-a country he describes as "wicked"--and smuggled them past censors concerned about cultural sensitivity by using the Dear Abby postmark. The U.S. Postal Service, acting on a complaint by Dear Abby, brought the campaign to an end.

    It's important to note that not all Christians believe they should evangelize--even a little bit--particularly in Muslim countries. Church World Service, the relief arm of mainline Protestant and Eastern Orthodox Christians, works with both Christian and Islamic relief groups in Iraq. "We are very specifically a humanitarian aid agency," says spokeswoman Jan Dragin. "It just so happens our roots are faith-based."

    Hearing of the evangelicals' plans, Muslim scholar and activist Abdulaziz Sachedina said: "We need to educate them, don't we? Muslims need to tell the evangelicals we share some of the same values they are preaching, and we have in us the love of Jesus."

    He worries that, with the Muslim world convinced Americans are waging a war on Islam, allowing Christian missionaries in Iraq will be explosive. At the least, he suggests, these groups should "wait until things cool off."

    Evangelicals are puzzled by their detractors. "I'm not sure why offering compassion and love can be criticized," says Norvelle, the Southern Baptist. Indeed, many Americans don't understand the resentment in Muslim countries of Christian missionaries. And they don't understand that in the eyes of the rest of the world, America's government and its dominant religion appear inseparable.

    It's not hard to imagine the rest of the world making that connection. Franklin Graham is closely associated with President Bush; Graham delivered the invocation at Bush's inauguration, and Bush credits Billy Graham with helping to bring him back to Christianity. But Graham has been one of the most strident critics of Islam, calling it on numerous occasions "evil" and "wicked."

    Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention is one the president's leading supporters. Last summer the Rev. Jerry Vines, former president of the 16 million-member denomination, described the Prophet Muhammad as a "demon-possessed pedophile." Days later, the current Southern Baptist president, Jack Graham, agreed. Bush Administration spokesman Ari Fleischer was compelled to differ with the preachers, saying that view was "something that the president definitely disagrees with." Yet President Bush spoke to the convention the day before Vines' comments, praising Baptists for being "among the earliest champions of religious tolerance."

    On Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer distanced Bush from the Christian leaders' past remarks and again described Islam as "a religion of peace."


    more from beliefnet and our partners