- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 28, 2004

The recent killing of four Baptist aid workers in Iraq has not discouraged area churches from continuing their missionary efforts in dangerous countries, religious leaders say.

Missionaries “risk their lives to let people who would never hear the name Jesus have the same opportunity we have in America,” said William Hurley, chairman of Reston Bible Church’s missions committee.

Mr. Hurley said the church has about 241 missionaries overseas, but would not say whether any of them are in Iraq.

Still, he is painfully aware of the dangers. Two close friends working in Colombia several years ago were taken captive, then executed.

“It could happen at any time,” he said.

Mr. Hurley, also a Prince William County police officer, said he is dumbstruck at how corporations find their way into tribal villages where inhabitants still need help building their homes and translating the Bible.

“They will have Coca-Cola, but they won’t know Jesus,” said Mr. Hurley, 50.

The four missionaries killed in Iraq were described by the Southern Baptist International Mission Board as American humanitarian-aid workers. They were attacked while driving near the city of Mosul. A fifth worker survived the attack and is listed on the mission board’s Web site as in stable condition in Germany.

Organization officials said the missionaries’ primary job was to develop a water-purification project and that they would discuss issues of faith with Iraqis only when asked.

“Our people work very hard to understand the culture of a place before they go in,” said Mark Kelly, organization spokesman. “Almost anybody would understand that you don’t go into a predominantly Muslim place and act like you were in Honduras, where you can preach on the street corner.

“Baptists feel very strongly about freedom of religion. Assistance is given without regard to whom the people are or if they’re interested in hearing a message,” Mr. Kelly said. “Receiving the assistance is a tangible way they can see how much God loves them.”

The approach is similar to that used by the Baltimore-based Lutheran World Relief.

“God loves us without strings,” said Jonathan Frerichs, an organization spokesman. “You preach with your hands. You let your deeds speak for your faith.”

Mr. Frerichs traveled to Baghdad in April and May of 2003 to make sure medical supplies were intact after the war. He said trusting local missionaries was key in getting around Iraq.

“When you go out, you’re blessed by the street smarts of the people you’re working with,” Mr. Frerichs said. “You put yourself in the hands of local staff and wish you were a bit shorter.”

The organization’s work in Iraq centers on financial support for local missions through the “All Our Children” program, a partnership of American charities.

Mr. Frerichs acknowledged that some American missionaries go to Iraq, but said they stay behind the scenes to help community leaders who are less likely to be targeted in attacks.

“Their best protection is their acceptance,” he said.

Oakbrook Church in Reston takes a similar approach.

The nondenominational church sends about 300 people overseas each year. The missions focus on meeting with local churches or humanitarian groups and helping them for a short time, perhaps a week.

“We just support them with a team ministry,” said interim Senior Pastor Dan Wolfe. “We fit into what they’re doing.”

Such partnerships helps missionaries avoid life-threatening regions.

“We haven’t had people in dangerous situations like Iraq,” said Mr. Wolfe. “If there’s a volatile situation, we would wait until it was more peaceful.”

For example, a scheduled trip to Haiti was canceled after a revolution broke out and contacts warned Oakbrook missionaries not to come.

Ron Johnson, director of the Missions Ministry at McLean Bible Church, said the Apostle Paul is an example of why many missionaries risk their lives.

Despite being jailed for his preaching, Paul had a “compelling desire to have people know that they can have a relationship with the God of the universe, not just a religious experience,” he said.

The church supports about 90 missionaries in 30 countries. Mr. Johnson said the church has nobody in Iraq, but has workers in Sudan and Indonesia who are often in dangerous situations.

“They have to be careful. Those risks are there,” he said.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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