Southern Baptist Convention International Mission Board officials indicated they have no immediate plans to change their strategy of providing "humanitarian aid" in Iraq despite the shooting deaths of four missions workers there March 15.
Baptist Press on Wednesday described one of the dead, 28-year-old David McDonnall of Texas, as a "martyr" and "ambassador of love" intent on sharing the love of Jesus with people "who otherwise might never know."
Also killed were Larry and Jean Elliott, longtime IMB employees from North Carolina, and 38-year-old Karen Watson of Bakersfield, Calif.
McDonnall's wife, Carrie Taylor McDonnall, 26, survived the attack in Mosul and is in the United States after being transported Saturday from Germany to a hospital in Dallas. Doctors are optimistic about her recovery, according to Baptist Press.
IMB officials said at a March 16 press conference in Richmond, Va., that there are no immediate plans to pull other workers out of Iraq. Citing safety concerns, officials would not say how many of their 5,411 personnel are in Iraq. Like many Muslim countries, Iraq does not grant visas to religious workers, so IMB personnel on the ground are registered as humanitarian workers or with other jobs.
"Our personnel, as Americans and Christians, are well aware of the risk of living and serving in a place like Iraq," IMB spokesman Clyde Meador said in a statement. "Yet their love for the Iraqi people and obedience to the conviction of God's leadership have been expressed in a willingness to take that risk, even to giving their lives."
IMB officials did not respond to questions e-mailed by EthicsDaily.com about policies governing deployment of missionaries into potentially dangerous assignments.
But the agency's former president, Keith Parks, said the board's policy has always been that those with a strong calling should go and decisions about whether to stay or leave are up to the missionary family. "Some things are worth dying for, and obeying Jesus Christ is at the top of this list," Parks said in an e-mail interview.
Parks, who went on to lead global missions for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship after retiring from the SBC missions post in 1992, said he always advised missionaries to use common sense and "not to court martyrdom," but the impact of leaving ought to be considered as a factor alongside concerns for the missionary's safety.
Southern Baptists had missionaries in Vietnam until Saigon fell in 1975, for example.
Parks said as recently as 1992, a dozen Southern Baptist missionaries had been counted as meeting violent deaths since the mission board's founding in 1845. Eight Southern Baptist workers have died violently in the just the last 15 months, however. The shootings in Iraq follow the bombing death of Southern Baptist missionary William Hyde last March in the Philippines and those of three Southern Baptist missionaries fatally shot in Yemen in December 2002.
Parks acknowledged that some factors make the world more dangerous today. Globalization has made it easier for terrorist cells to export violence. Danger is more widespread and less predictable, and Westerners are increasingly targeted in much of the world. Religions are more militant on a broader scale than in the past.
Other factors, Parks said, are rapid redeployment of missionaries, meaning that even veteran workers are often less familiar with local languages and customs. The increasing use of short-term and volunteer workers makes thorough preparation more difficult.
Do those factors mean that the numbers of missionaries ought to be restricted? "Quite the contrary," said Parks. "There is greater urgency than ever. More people are going out into eternity without even the chance of knowing Jesus Christ."
"We must keep changing our strategy to witness in a changing world," Parks said. "But the scriptural mandate is clear and calls for renewed commitment from all serious followers of Jesus Christ."
Contrary to that approach, however, other relief groups are keeping Americans off the ground and working instead with Arab Christians, whose presence they feel is less likely to create a backlash in heavily Muslim places like Iraq.
"We do not espouse a missile-and-missions approach, where when the U.S. military goes in, U.S. missionaries run to the same area," Robert Fetherlin, vice president for international ministries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, said in the Denver Post.
Parks' successor at the Atlanta-based CBF, Gary Baldridge, said his agency was approached about sending someone to Iraq but decided against it. "Anybody who's an American is going to be a target there," Baldridge said.
"It doesn't always make a lot of sense for an American (or another Westerner) to be the point person in different parts of the world," Baldridge said.
The American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. did not send any missionaries to Iraq but supported relief work financially, Reid Trulson, area director for Europe and the Middle East with American Baptist International Ministries, said in an e-mail.
Trulson said American Baptists are opting to support relief work ecumenically through Church World Service "rather than duplicating efforts by deploying our own personnel to this location."
Some mission groups have formal policies regarding evacuation of personnel in trouble zones, while others handle situations on a case-by-case basis.
Youth With a Mission International has a 32-page "Terrorist Avoidance & Survival Manual," which covers procedures for crisis situations including kidnapping and surveillance. In the event of war, "the first consideration will be the possible impact upon expatriates and whether or not they should be evacuated," the internal document says.
BMS World Mission in England considers the safety of overseas personnel on a case-by-case basis, balancing advice of government officials "with that from trusted partners on the ground," said Mark Craig, director for communications.
Paul Sherrill, vice president for operations for Young Life, said that if his mission leaders felt a staff member were at risk, leaders would ask the staffer to leave and make plans for evacuation. When a worker believes the loss of impact outweighs the potential for danger, however, "the ultimate decision is theirs."
Serving In Mission, an interdenominational mission organization working in Africa, Asia and South America has evacuated workers from places like Pakistan, Liberia and Ivory Coast during the last 10 years, said spokesperson Jo-Ann Brant, based on directives from embassies. In instances where seasoned workers felt they had a critical ministry that prompted them to remain or return quickly, however, "we honored their individual callings," she said.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.