Onward Christian soldiers

Conservative fundamentalists with close ties to President Bush are planning a new missionary push in Iraq -- and they might already be converting U.S. troops to their cause.

Topics: Religion, George W. Bush, Iraq war, Islam,

 Onward Christian soldiers

Now that the Big Brother busts of Saddam Hussein are crashing to the ground from Basra to Kirkuk and widespread looting and violence have filled the power vacuum, Iraq remains tense and its future is murky. There, people are more concerned with things like water and medical care than the abstract world of politics. But in the West, a growing corps is squabbling over the spoils of war. While winners and losers in bids for reconstruction contracts and humanitarian opportunities are still being sorted out, one group seems certain to gain an avenue into the country: Southern Baptist Convention ministers prominent in the galaxy of the religious right. Among them is Charles Stanley, the former two-time president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a close ally of former President George Bush and a fervent supporter of the current president’s war on Iraq.

Stanley serves as pastor at Atlanta’s First Baptist Church, a 15,000-member congregation, and is the founder of In Touch Ministries, which claims to broadcast his sermons in 14 languages to every country in the world, and which, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has $40 million in assets. Since Stanley founded In Touch in 1974, he has not shied from using his ministry’s resources to bring his voice to bear in the political arena. His most recent example of activism came in February when he delivered a sermon titled “A Nation At War,” placing him among a minority of mostly Evangelical Christian leaders to endorse Bush’s plans for an attack on Iraq.

“The government is ordained by God with the right to promote good and restrain evil,” Stanley said in his sermon. “This includes wickedness that exists within the nation, as well as any wicked persons or countries that threaten foreign nations … Therefore, a government has biblical grounds to go to war in the nation’s defense or to liberate others in the world who are enslaved.” And sampling from a scattershot of biblical passages to inform his argument, Stanley warned that those who oppose or disobey the U.S. government in its drive to war “will receive condemnation upon themselves.”

Though Stanley’s bellicose sermon targets an American audience, it was almost certainly heard across the Arab world, as his sermons are translated into Arabic by In Touch and beamed from Benghazi, Libya, to Tehran, Iran, each week by satellite TV and radio. But while Saddam maintained his iron grip, In Touch could broadcast to Iraq only by shortwave radio; now that the regime has fallen, the ministry could be presented with a bevy of opportunities. The opportunity for broadcast expansion in postwar Iraq is “phenomenal,” says Don Black, vice president of communications at In Touch. “It would be one of our goals to be able to have a platform to tell the truth as we understand it, as any communicator should have the right to do.”

Even before victory has been formally declared, In Touch is just one phalanx in an army of Christian soldiers who see Muslim Iraq as an extraordinary new marketplace for their theology. Already, churches and ministries on the religious right are poised to send in missionaries and to amp up broadcasts to the region. Like advance troops before the invasion, some U.S. military officials in Iraq have already staked out the country as a natural place to spread the Christian Gospel.

Officially, the Bush administration has taken no position on the campaign for converts. But foreign policy experts — and even some moderate Christian groups — are already warning that efforts by the conservative Christians to capitalize on the fall of Saddam could inject a decidedly religious tone into Bush’s stated plan to democratize Iraq. And unless the administration takes a strong stand against that campaign, some say, the missionaries may provoke a deep, damaging backlash there and throughout the Muslim world.

Christian groups’ proselytizing in Third World countries is nothing new, but critics of In Touch allege that the ultrapatriotic nature of Stanley’s sermons render its plans to expand operations in Iraq dangerous and insensitive to the country’s complex and fragile social fabric. Many Muslims worldwide have accused the U.S. of waging a “crusade” and consider the prospect of Christians proselytizing in Iraq a revelation of the U.S.’s nefarious agenda. In the past, anti-Islamic comments made by Southern Baptists allied with Stanley, like Jerry Falwell, have stoked the rage of the Muslim world and made life dangerous for Middle Eastern Christians and Western missionaries operating in the area. But Stanley and his compatriots remain fiercely committed to winning the souls of the Iraqi people, even if it undermines the work undertaken by U.S. troops and civilian administrators to win their hearts and minds.

According to Amy Hawthorne, Middle East specialist and associate for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Southern Baptists planning to proselytize in Iraq should expect to be greeted with exceptional suspicion, not only because of the presence of American troops but also because of the country’s history. “These people [Southern Baptists] are active in other parts of the region, including southern Lebanon, a heavily Shiite area, so it’s not without precedent,” she told Salon. “But Iraq is a country that’s been sealed off from the rest of the world, and even to an extent from its own region, for a long time. So these are not communities that are used to having lots of foreigners amongst them … This is a very sensitive issue throughout the Arab world, but the context of Iraq may be more sensitive because this is not a country with a long history of internal tolerance and pluralism.”

Charles Kimball, a Baptist minister and director of religious studies at Wake Forest University, is more blunt: Stanley and other luminaries of the religious right who wrap God in an American flag are “whipping up a kind of Christian nationalism,” he says, and that could severely complicate America’s credibility there and in the Muslim world at large.

“Anything that prominent Christian leaders do and say that gets a lot of press attention and says ‘America’s right’ and ‘God is on our side’ or ‘Islam is evil’ is not lost on the world,” says Kimball, author of “When Religion Becomes Evil.” “All of these folks (on the religious right) in their certainty and arrogance are doing considerable harm by what they are preaching. They have to realize that these words reverberate around the world and are being used by Muslim extremists to whip up a frenzy.”

Kimball also accuses Stanley of insensitivity to the 14 million to 16 million Christians who live in the Middle East. “He’s saying, ‘If you don’t want to go to war, God will punish you, and by the way, God wants us to go to war,’” states Kimball. “If I were sitting face-to-face with Charles Stanley, I’d say: ‘You’re saying the exact opposite of what the vast majority of Christians in the world are saying. Where is your certainty coming from?’”

What Kimball calls Stanley’s brand of Christian nationalism was on vivid display in an In Touch prayer pamphlet titled “A Christian’s Duty,” which features a list of daily prayers for U.S. troops serving in Iraq and for President Bush and his advisors. Framed in luminous shades of red, white and blue, the pamphlet includes a tear-off prayer pledge that can be mailed to the president. According to Black, In Touch Ministries has distributed 850,000 of the pamphlets across the U.S. and could exceed the 1 million mark very soon. Of course, during wartime it is common for religious leaders to ask their congregations to pray for their leaders to act wisely and for the safety of their troops. But some of the daily prayers in “A Christian’s Duty” are exceptional. For instance, one reads: “Pray that the President and his advisors will be strong and courageous to do what is right regardless of critics.”

Specifically, Black claims, the pamphlet is referring to people like the journalist Peter Arnett, who was fired in midwar by NBC for telling Iraqi media sources that the U.S.’s military strategy had failed. “There’s always naysayers and every decision is countered with a criticism,” says Black. “Many people in the profession of journalism have positioned themselves as naysayers and I use Peter Arnett as an example … But the plan has moved forward and [the military has] stayed with what they felt was right and that’s an example of how that prayer would be applied.”

“A Christian’s Duty” made a splash recently when the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that it had turned up by the thousands among U.S. Marines in Iraq. Because the ABC cited an anonymous embedded reporter, the report is almost impossible to confirm. Black denied that In Touch sent the pamphlets directly, hypothesizing that an individual member might have delivered them without In Touch’s knowledge. Centcom spokesman Col. Keith Oliver of the Marines said he is not familiar with the prayer guide, but added that he’s “not surprised at all that civilian ministries in the United States would be providing materials to our troops … It’s just as much a part of life on bases overseas as it is back in the towns and cities of America. But it’s curious to me that anyone would be alarmed. The Bible’s pretty clear about asking us to pray for our leaders.”

Oliver’s remarkable statement may be emblematic of a Christian zeal that has some support among troops in Iraq. One chaplain who may have taken In Touch’s pamphlet to heart is Josh Llano, a self-described Southern Baptist serving in the Army. An April 4 article in the Miami Herald reports that Llano has been offering baths at Camp Bushmaster in Iraq to soldiers who haven’t bathed in weeks — on the condition that he be allowed to baptize them. Like Stanley, Llano quotes from the Bible to justify war, telling the Herald that “we are called upon by our government to fight and that is giving to Caesar, as the Bible tells us.”

Whether or not In Touch sent “A Christian’s Duty” directly to Marines in Iraq, the content of the pamphlet is in keeping with Stanley’s long history of intertwining religion with politics, which at times has left him embroiled in controversy. As an original board member of Jerry Falwell’s political action group, Moral Majority, Stanley helped lobby against the Equal Rights Amendment, homosexual rights, abortion and the U.S.-Soviet SALT treaties. In 1986, a speech he made in San Francisco stirred up outrage when he said of homosexuality: “AIDS is God indicating his displeasure and his attitude toward that form of lifestyle, which we in this country are about to accept.”

Stanley backed President George Bush I in his failed 1992 reelection bid. Bush, an Episcopalian and a social moderate compared to his born-again Christian son, was polling badly among religious conservatives during the Republican primaries. So when the Georgia primary rolled around in February, Stanley invited Bush to services at First Baptist Church, and in a carefully tailored speech, Bush told the whooping crowd: “We believe America’s first so long as we put family first.” Bush’s appearance at First Baptist marked a turning point in his campaign; he swept the South, decisively crushing the insurgent candidacy of arch-conservative Patrick Buchanan.

Stanley’s activity in the political arena also includes the seat he held on the board of the Religious Roundtable, a pantheon of the religious right that assessed the Christian credentials of Republican primary candidates during the 1996 campaign. And he has joined Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell as a board member of the National Religious Broadcasters Association, a lobbying powerhouse that backed Bush II’s 2000 campaign and gave him a forum to push his war plans at its annual conference in February 2003. Still, until reports surfaced of In Touch’s prayer pamphlets in Iraq, he has been content to hang in the background while Falwell, Robertson and Billy Graham’s son, Franklin Graham, make headlines.

Graham recently caused a flash on the media radar when he announced that members of his humanitarian mission, Samaritan’s Purse, and the Southern Baptist Convention are poised to enter Iraq after the war to offer aid in the name of Jesus Christ. At In Touch Ministries, Black was skeptical about the plan. In Touch certainly wouldn’t rule out helping if the need is there, he said, but the ministry’s ultimate calling is to provide “the Truth” by cassette tapes, radio and TV.

Nevertheless, an open avenue into the Arab world is as crucial to In Touch as it is to Samaritan’s Purse. On its Web site, In Touch refers to the Middle East as the “10/40 Window … a 10-by-40 degree area north of the equator [which] houses the majority of the world’s people who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their language. These people … are in desperate need of the Truth.” Stanley’s weekly sermons are beamed across the “10/40 Window” via satellite TV and shortwave radio by Middle East TV (METV), an American-owned Evangelical broadcast network. According to METV’s Web site, its mission is “bringing the Gospel message of hope and peace to the troubled Middle East.” Along with Stanley’s weekly “In Touch” show, METV offers a mixed fare of evangelical programming, American sports, and reruns of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Gilligan’s Island” — all accompanied by Arabic subtitles. Since satellite dishes will probably become legal and popular in postwar Iraq, Stanley and METV’s audience there seems likely to grow.

When METV was founded in 1982 by an evangelical minister, Lester Sumrall, it started by operating out of a van in Israeli-occupied Southern Lebanon with the sanction of the Israeli government. It is now owned by LeSEA (Lester Sumrall Evangelistic Association), the Sumrall family’s umbrella group, which includes a humanitarian mission and a tourism agency that, according to its Web site, works in tandem with Israel’s Tourism Ministry. When Israel ended its occupation of Lebanon in 1999, METV was forced to relocate to Cyprus.

Charles Kimball was in Israel and Lebanon to do interfaith work with the Mid East Council of Churches when METV started broadcasting evangelical programs like Pat Robertson’s “The 700 Club” in the area. Kimball recalls that Christians from Lebanon and the Galilee region of Northern Israel bristled at Robertson’s enthusiasm for the activities of the right-wing Christian Phalangist militia and the Israeli Defense Forces in Lebanon’s bloody civil war. And he says that METV’s broadcasts inflamed tensions between Lebanon’s indigenous Christians and their Muslim countrymen, who became suspicious that their Christian neighbors might have actually agreed with Robertson’s anti-Islamic vitriol.

“The problem begins with outsiders like In Touch, Pat Robertson and METV coming in and ignoring the indigenous Christian community as if they don’t exist, thinking they’re the only people who have the message, and broadcasting whatever they want without realizing there are consequences for the people who actually live there,” says Kimball.

Black, in an interview, seemed uninformed about Iraq’s vibrant Christian community, comparing its fate to that of Christians in the Soviet Union who were forced to worship underground. Though it is beyond debate that ethnic minorities have suffered and faced brutal persecution under Saddam, Archbishop Djirbrael Kassab, leader of Basra’s Chaldean Christian community, told the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in October 2002 that U.N. sanctions and constant U.S. and British bombing have contributed as much to the hardship and gradual exodus of Iraq’s Christians as any of Saddam’s repressive moves. In fact, Saddam’s vice president, Tariq Aziz, is a Christian and 740,000 Iraqi Christians still maintain their ancient congregations, some of which date back to the days of the Apostles.

Kimball claims that the “Christian Nationalism” of prominent Southern Baptist ministers has not only offended the Middle East’s indigenous Christian culture; in its most extreme form, it has infuriated Muslims and provoked violent interethnic conflict. As an example, he points to Jerry Falwell’s remark in an October 2002 interview with “60 Minutes” that Muhammad is a terrorist. The remark prompted riots and clashes between Muslims and Hindus in India and Kashmir that left five dead and many injured.

The announcement by Franklin Graham and Southern Baptist Convention president Jack Graham of plans to proselytize in postwar Iraq have predictably deepened the hostility of the Muslim world to America’s invasion of Iraq. In the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Graham called Islam “a violent and wicked religion”; the Islamic Web site Khilafah.com characterized Graham’s plans as “enhancing the conviction among some Arabs and Muslims that the U.S.-led war of aggression on Iraq is part of a new ‘crusade campaign.’” Khilafah.com has followed by issuing a downloadable prayer pamphlet called “Destroy the Fourth Crusader War,” which reads like the antithesis of In Touch’s “A Christian’s Duty,” urging readers to pray against Bush and take up jihad against the U.S. and Britain.

Despite Graham’s announcement and the potential for a violent confrontation because of it, the Bush administration has yet to repudiate his remarks. Graham delivered the invocation at Bush’s inauguration and according to a spokesman from the Pentagon chaplain’s office, who declined to identify himself, Graham will attend Good Friday services at the Pentagon on April 18. So it is safe to say the Bush administration will not interfere with Graham and the Southern Baptist Convention’s controversial plans, and neither, apparently, will retired Gen. Jay Garner, who will lead the future Iraqi government as head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA). Garner declined Salon’s request for an interview. When asked whether the administration would discourage or allow campaigns such as those planned by Graham and Stanley, his spokesman, Capt. Nathan Jones, said: “This is an issue for a future Iraqi government to decide.”

Sarah Eltantawi, director of communications for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, calls Graham’s presence at a Pentagon function a “provocation” to the Muslim world. And as such, the Pentagon’s evasive attitude is cause for concern. “Whether we like it or not, these people [evangelical proselytizers] are seen as representing the American government and people,” Eltantawi says. “So for the Pentagon to avoid the issue, it deflects from what the consequences are for us and our national security.”

Ironically, some of the fiercest criticism of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ministers has come from members of their own congregation who are concerned about the safety of missionaries already in the Muslim world. A January 2003 letter from a group of missionaries working through the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board in 10 predominately Muslim countries released to the Biblical Recorder, a Baptist news journal, expresses grave concern that the anti-Islamic rhetoric of Graham, Falwell and other ministers is being broadcast widely through the Muslim world.

“These types of comments have and can further the already heightened animosity toward Christians, more so toward Evangelicals, and even more so toward Baptists,” the letter says. “We are not sure if you are aware of the ramifications that comments that malign Islam and Muhammad have not only on the message of the gospel but also on the lives of our families as we are living in the midst of already tense times.”

One example of the heightened danger faced by this group of missionaries came last December, when three members of the Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board were murdered by Islamic militants in Yemen. They had operated a hospital in the country for 35 years but had begun receiving hostile threats after Yemen joined the U.S. war on terror, allowing American military advisors to train its military in counterterror operations and sanctioning the CIA assassination of a suspected al-Qaida leader on its soil. Jack Graham, the current president of the Southern Baptist Convention, called the missionaries’ killings “a stark reminder that the war on terrorism is very real,” adding, “This is a war between Christians and the forces of evil, by whatever name they choose to use. The ultimate terrorist is Satan.”

Now that the Southern Baptist Convention is focusing on Iraq, incidents like the murders in Yemen should give Stanley, Falwell and Franklin Graham pause. But judging from the comments of Jack Graham, the “Truth” is on its way to Iraq, whether in pamphlets, boxes of food, or television signals. Given the state of anarchy that has erupted in Iraq, there is a growing sense that proselytizing there is becoming more dangerous by the day. The chaos was initially described as “jubilant” by reporters, but signs of nascent ethnic violence suggest the tune could be changing. The mob-butchering on April 9 in Najaf of two rival clerics, one a Sunni from Saddam’s regime and one a pro-Western Shiite, during a meeting arranged to take place at a holy shrine by U.S. Special Forces certainly points in that direction. The U.S. hoped the meeting would foster reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis but, like its involvement in Lebanon, it turned out to be a naive miscalculation.

In a worst-case scenario, the U.S. occupation of Iraq could resemble Lebanon’s civil war, in which the dissolution of a government allowed various ethnic groups and opportunistic outsiders to act out their long-standing rivalries. Centcom’s Col. Oliver was among Marines deployed to Lebanon in 1983 by President Reagan with the aim of restoring order to the country. As in the current war on Iraq, Oliver served as a spokesman for the Marines, eloquently explaining their noble intentions for Lebanon. Tragically, the Marines were sent packing by an Islamic radical with a fire in his heart and a truckful of deadly explosives. Oliver appears in Thomas Friedman’s book “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” standing around the rubble of the Marine barracks where 241 U.S. servicemen lost their lives. “You know,” he remarks in disbelief, “these people just aren’t playin’ with the same sheet of music.”

During the Lebanon conflict, Oliver says the Marines worked “hand-in-glove” with Pat Robertson and his Christian Broadcasting Network while he broadcast his overtly pro-American, pro-Israel sermons throughout the country. Despite the Marines’ fate there and the reports of Islamic militants filtering into Iraq to wage jihad against what they view as a new “crusade,” the Bush administration has not visibly discouraged ministers like Stanley and Graham from repeating Robertson’s actions. With its credibility at stake, an American-led interim government looks likely to dig in in Iraq for a long and delicate occupation of Arab land with a group of Southern Baptist evangelicals by its side. And a battle of biblical proportions may be just beginning.

Max Blumenthal is an award winning journalist and the bestselling author of "Republican Gomorrah: Inside the movement that shattered the party"

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