The Ballad of Joking Jesus

Who's zoomin' who in postwar Iraq?


Of all the legitimate complaints you might make about the Bush Administration's policy in Iraq—the folly of an open-ended nation-building exercise; the no-bid reconstruction contracts; the seeming transformation of L. Paul Bremer III into an Ottoman khedive; the none-too-convincing explaining away of sorry excuses for weapons of mass destruction, and so on—the strangest is this: the fear that Iraq may be entering a period of true religious freedom. This fear has come not just from scandalized schoolmarms getting their first eyeful of the way Shi'a Muslims celebrate Ashura, but from the apparently even more numerous folks who think evangelical Christians are the real threat to Iraq's (if not America's) future.

Certainly you've heard of the evangelical menace:

Born again Christians are "known Islam-baiters" who seek "to canvas their faith in a country that has been ravaged by the US-led war," avers Al Jazeera.

"It can increase the tension level in an already tense environment to have an organization that's headed up by someone [underachieving son of a preacherman Franklin Graham] who's very well-known in the Muslim and Arab world as an anti-Muslim bigot be seen coming in the wake of an invading army," Council on American-Islamic Relations spokesman Hodan Hassan warns Voice of America. "There are many in that part of the world who didn't necessarily view the war in Iraq as a war of liberation, but saw it potentially as another Crusade."

"[B]ypassing the Christians who are suffering elsewhere to go to the Muslim world is, at best, insensitive and, at worst, condescending and spiritually arrogant," Shaker El Sayed, secretary general of the Muslim American Society, says in a Newsday article.

"Strangely enough, [Osama bin Laden's] apocalyptic message—always ending in terrible destruction and the conversion of "the other"—is strikingly similar to the Armageddonite message of many evangelical Christians," writes UPI's Georgie Anne Geyer.

"America's physical intrusion into Muslim countries in the Middle East opens a broad new spectrum in terms of domestic American politics," James Ridgeway ejaculates in the Village Voice. "The vanquished Iraq, with all of its non-Christians, provides an arena in which to reward religious groups with politically motivated aid contracts, and within the U.S., Republicans can try to build nativist support by arguing, for example, that U.S. Muslims don't believe in democracy."

"Verbal attacks from top Christian evangelicals have also contributed to the hostility that many Muslims face," Geneive Abdo reports in the Boston Globe.

The evangelical equivalent of the Swine Flu scare seems to have arrived Tuesday, in the form of a Page One article in The New York Times, titled, "Seeing Islam as 'Evil' Faith, Evangelicals Seek Converts." In that story, reporter Laurie Goodstein sits in a how-to-convert-Muslims seminar from Arab International Ministry that sounds like a hybrid of the Two Minutes' Hate and everybody's worst nightmare of an Amway meeting. "You can tell me Islam is peaceful, but I've done my homework," says AIM's mysterious headmaster.

Now there are many reasons to be concerned about seeing evangelicals unleashed in the Arab world—not least of which is their tendency, noted by Geyer above, to see the Middle East as a playground for enacting millennial fantasies. The most charitable word for the inflammatory comments made by born again chuckleheads like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell is silly. And the concern that a full-court press by missionaries could support suspicions that the United States is waging war on Islam is not a trivial matter—which is why the Bush Administration has taken pains to distance itself from the work of missionaries now entering Iraq.

But these alarms over evangelical missions in Iraq overlook two points.

The first has to do with religious freedom. Proselytizing, converting, passing out literature, importuning people with your witnessing, even vituperating rival religious beliefs, may all be fairly irritating in practice, but they are also essential to the very concept of freedom of worship. A countryside dotted with motivated, suspiciously cheerful missionaries is a signal that religious liberty is in good shape. Certainly a faith as total and dynamic as Islam can withstand the relatively feeble attractions of a few born again missionaries.

It may be the case—and even some evangelicals have hinted so—that the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime is already shaping up as a net loss for Iraqi Christians. But blaming evangelicals for Islamic impatience with freedom of religion is precisely backward. If we accept that individual religious rights are essential to liberalizing the Middle East, then the United States should probably be doing more, not less, to encourage missionaries of all stripes.

The second point is less obvious, but will be familiar to anybody who has seen how the evangelization process works in Arab communities: When evangelicals proselytize Arabs, they don't focus on Muslims but on Christians. Specifically, on followers of the traditional eastern churches—Orthodox, Coptic, eastern-rite Catholic, and so on—that occupy small minority positions in the Middle East.

Of the approximately 1 million Christians who make their homes in Iraq, about 75 percent belong to the Chaldean Church, an eastern rite sect that entered into communion with the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century. (Tariq Aziz, Saddam's famous deputy prime minister, is a Chaldean; his real name is Michael Yuhanna.) The Syriac, Assyrian and Armenian Orthodox churches comprise most of the rest.

That evangelicals may be coming to save their congregants is hardly welcome news to leaders of these churches, who are already occupied trying to make sure things don't get any worse under a newly empowered Shi'a Muslim social order. In interviews for this story, U.S. representatives of the various Iraqi churches, to varying degrees, deplored evangelical efforts among Christians. "They concentrate 100 percent on Christians," says Reverend Ibrahim N. Ibrahim, bishop of the Chaldean diocese in the United States. "They never proselytize Muslims."

Such complaints may seem petty, comical, or—to anybody unfamiliar with the squabbles between Saved Christians and plain old Christians—puzzling. But they're not without foundation. I've seen one Bay Area Assemblies of God Arab outreach church build up a substantial congregation almost entirely by poaching parishioners from local Orthodox churches—and that's in the United States, where traditional churches don't face nearly the same economic, physical and social hardships they do in the Middle East.

The dynamic is fairly clear: Given the improbability that Muslims will begin making decisions for Christ in large numbers, missionaries tend to go for the low-hanging fruit. And with their stodgy liturgical practices, aloof clergy and affiliations with the old regime (Though he was a fickle friend, Saddam generally provided protection for eastern Christians), the traditional churches hang very low indeed. "We already have the Catholic Church in Iraq," says Reverend Jacob Yasso, pastor of Sacred Heart Chaldean Church in Detroit. "Why send non-Catholics there? This kind of thing could backfire with the Catholic authorities, and it could cause a backlash against Christians. We have had traditional Christianity in Iraq since the first century. But the Protestant Church in Baghdad has always been considered as a spy, even during the royal period [1932-1958]."

The precarious situation of eastern Christians can make the prospect of any change seem gloomy. "One concern about the evangelical infusion," says Monsignor Dennis Madden, associate secretary general of the Catholic Near East Welfare Association, "was the prospect that it might upset the apple cart. We are concerned that there at least not be a lessening of religious freedom. Right now, you have a situation where people have lived under oppression, under a dictator. Now to move toward democratization, toward respect for all different groups, that's a very big challenge. At the same time you have to respect the heritage and culture of Iraq. So there is a great potential for things to get out of hand."

It's sometimes startling how few friends eastern Christians have. The modus vivendi they've worked out with Muslims can't disguise their vanishingly small numbers—a structural weakness for Christians in every country except Lebanon. The vast Muslim majority is a constant presence and an occasional threat; Egypt's Copts are forever at the edge of disaster. The fragile order of secular tyrannies that afforded Christians some small protection is now breaking down. Partly for that reason, eastern Christians also don't have any friends among western hawks; in picking teams in the clash of civilizations, writer Samuel Huntington placed the hierarchical churches in the enemy camp. But even pals of the Near East can't find much to like in the eastern Churches. In his book The Arabists, Robert Kaplan traces the long history of disdain Arab sympathizers felt for eastern Christians. That's an antipathy Kaplan follows all the way back to the earliest Protestant missionaries, beautifully depicting the mood among Congregationalists in the early 19th century:

Their initial experiences in Smyrna, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Beirut had taught the Congregationalists that the Eastern Christians were no less in need of Christ than the Moslems. If anything, they needed him more.

The very impossibility of converting the Moslems—or the Eastern Jews, for that matter—forced the missionaries to accept these two peoples as unalterably different: part of the exotic Oriental milieu requiring serious study. But to arrive in Jerusalem…only to see the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the other Holy Places guarded by a dirty and superstitious rabble of Greeks and Byzantinized Arabs, all kissing icons and burning incense amid gold-leaf finery, scandalized these well-bred and puritanical New Englanders. In the eyes of the missionaries, it was the Oriental Christians—the Greek Orthodox, the Egyptian Copts, the Lebanese Maronites, and others—who had truly usurped the Holy Land, by emphasizing the hypnotic mechanics of liturgy over the Word of God! The Protestant missionary animus toward these strange Eastern rite churches, products of Byzantine rule in the Middle East from the fourth through sixth centuries A.D., was never to dissipate. In fact, it would grow. In 1920 a Beirut missionary, Margaret A McGilvary, writes: "The Oriental Church is the canker at the heart of Christianity, and inasmuch as it is the chief point of contact with Islam, it behooves the Christian world to renovate the system which so unworthily represents its cause in the Near East."

Back in 2003's Iraq, evangelical Christians note that their work in Iraq at present is charitable, not missionary.

"It's important to remember that evangelicals are not focused on issues of religion," says Mark Kelly, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board. "Our goal in meeting Iraqis is not to persuade them to change their membership from one affiliation to another. Our goal is to help people understand how much God loves them. When it comes to decisions about matters of faith, we believe in freedom. That is entirely up to the individual." He points out that the IMB has a policy of not including literature with its food packages, and leaves religious discussion and choice at the individual level. "Evangelical mission work is a person-to-person endeavor," he says.

Except, that is, when it's not. For churches whose structure and function is largely dependent on hierarchy, religious freedom involves more than just individual conscience. "There are others who see religious liberty solely as a matter of individual liberty; we don't see it that way," says Gerard Powers, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "There's not just one legal approach to protecting religious freedom. You have to find an approach to both the individual's right to religious liberty and the corporate right that organizations have—that means the right to participate fully in the society. How you do that has to take into account the historical cultural realities of Iraq. But the bottom line is that you've got to protect the full spectrum of religious rights for everyone."

How that spectrum of rights will eventually be safeguarded—particularly when so many higher priority issues are at stake—is a holy mystery. It's not beyond imagining that if and when serious negotiations over an Iraqi constitution are underway, American authorities may decide honoring local custom—through, for example, the sort of religious "protection" clauses that in several countries make it illegal to convert from Islam—is a small price to pay for harmony. That's a possibility IMB's Kelly, who stresses that his organization avoids confrontation with local authorities, considers with composure.

"I think it's unfortunate that reporters have let critics frame this discussion in terms of 'proselytizing' and 'conversion,'" he says. "It reflects a stereotyped understanding of who evangelicals are and what we do and why we do it. It assumes a sociological, 'world religions' approach to the subject, when evangelicals are not focused on religion. Evangelicals are motivated by their own life-changing experience of God's love and forgiveness, and their goal is simply to help other people understand how much God loves them and what he has done through Jesus to make it possible for everyone to experience his love and forgiveness for themselves."

With regard to the eastern churches, however, this is a way of answering the question without really answering it. The de-emphasizing of specific religion in favor of a personal relationship with Jesus is not incidental to the tension between traditional and reform faiths. It is the essence of the Protestant critique. The genius of the evangelical movement, in part, has been its ability to refine that critique and make it widely attractive. For the struggling eastern Christians, a crucial question is how tensions like these will play out in the social free-for-all that is postwar Iraq.

And the Arab International Ministry? "We were rather unhappy with [Tuesday's New York Times article]," says a representative of the organization. "It didn't reflect our attitude or values at all to focus on people calling Islam evil and trashing others' beliefs. We think the reporter had it in her mind that that's what she wanted to take out of our seminar." AIM will be publishing a rebuttal in the next day or so.