- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004

Missionaries in Iraq

As often happens, the idea for this morning’s front-page Special Report about American missionaries in Iraq began with a casual conversation in our newsroom.

Reporter Julia Duin, who covers religion for our national desk, said she had been hearing that a number of missionaries were active in Iraq and anxious to achieve as much as possible before the end of June for fear they would be thrown out once sovereignty is returned to the Iraqis.

This struck me as a fascinating story that had not yet caught the attention of the national media, and when I mentioned it to our senior editors they agreed. Deputy Foreign Editor Willis Witter and photographer Maya Alleruzzo were already scheduled to go to Iraq, so we asked them to make the story one of their top priorities.

We had thought the story would come together in a few days, but it took more than two weeks of solid digging, mainly because the missionaries are hard to find and even harder to interview. They tend to be private to the point of secretiveness, and for good reason: For a Muslim to convert to Christianity — a crime known as apostasy — is punishable by death.

“These people are really low-key,” Mr. Witter reports. “At one point we were really getting discouraged and began to talk about approaching Christians in disguise.

“I made up this huge story about being a professional economist and a part-time war tourist and called up this Christian group and made an appointment. We were driving over” before thinking better of it and admitted to being journalists.

Eventually, Mr. Witter says, Miss Alleruzzo “found a missionary on the street. He was with an Iraqi Christian who was handing out disposable diapers in a Christian neighborhood” of Baghdad.

The missionary was Mark Case, who is quoted in today’s article. He “was a retired businessman from Mississippi who had founded a Christian ministry,” according to Mr. Witter. He says Miss Alleruzzo “brought him to the house where he prayed with the housekeeper, an Iraqi Christian, for her to have a baby.” Mr. Case subsequently invited our reporter and photographer to a church where he preached and introduced them to a number of other missionaries.

Dash to Mosul

The project was well advanced when news broke early last week that insurgents had shot up a car full of American missionaries near the northern city of Mosul, killing four and wounding one.

“Since we had spent the better part of our first two weeks here looking for our first Christian missionary from the West, it seemed that we should check out Mosul,” Mr. Witter says.

“We just threw some stuff in an overnight bag and went there. Maya knew all these Army people in Mosul because for the past few months, she has been working on arranging to spend a few days with a National Guard unit from Virginia. … We got there kind of late, they fed us dinner and told us what happened. Maya wasn’t all that happy because she got there too late to make any images.

“A photographer’s job is much different than a writer’s. Images only exist for a short time, sometimes a split second. A writer for a newspaper with a 24-hour news cycle and an eight-hour time advantage, can just waltz into such a situation and take a reasonable stab at recreating everything with words.” There was one dicey moment at the hotel in Mosul: “The door to Maya’s room didn’t lock and these Arab men in robes with kaffiyehs knocked; Maya opened the door and they saw me with Maya’s computer and they apologized.

“So we were planning to trade rooms for the night in case they came back, but in the end we figured out how to lock the door.” Mr. Witter’s and Miss Alleruzzo’s next major project is to travel to southern Iraq to talk to some of the Spanish soldiers who are to be withdrawn.

“We met the deputy chief of mission at the Spanish Embassy here and he put us in touch with the Defense Ministry in Madrid and they’ve sent it to the Spanish military officers,” Mr. Witter reports. “There these things always take a few days, so we expect to hear something soon.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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