Some Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders a decade ago thought war would open heavenly doors.
As the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq started, SBC leaders quickly mobilized to turn the war-torn nation into an evangelistic opportunity, leading some critics to claim the SBC was using the war as a religious crusade.
Today (March 19) marks the 10th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War. Looking back, the claims of evangelistic possibilities on the heels of war clearly fell well short of the promises.
Rather than new doors being opened to gospel presentations, SBC initiatives in the Middle East nation fell apart within two years. The Christian community today in the embattled nation remains much smaller than before the bombs started dropping.
John Brady, coordinator of the International Mission Board (IMB) work in the Middle East and northern Africa, told Baptist Press in April 2003 that the outreach potential in Iraq was a “pivotal moment in history.”
Framing the need as the result of war, Brady criticized the Iraqi government for the people’s plight.
He did not note which nation dropped the bombs on the communities in which he was urging Southern Baptists’ help with relief work. Nor did he note how Southern Baptist leaders had advocated for the war.
Baptist Press noted the IMB had established an “Iraq Response Desk” and was accepting money for “Iraq Response.”
An accompanying piece included a checklist of actions individuals should start working on, such as getting a passport and immunizations, if they wanted to travel to Iraq to assist with upcoming relief efforts.
In a different Baptist Press article, Brady framed the Southern Baptist evangelistic work as the next logical step in the war’s progression.
“Even after the war is over, the Iraqi people will not know real peace unless they have God’s peace within their hearts,” Brady argued. “Neither the United Nations, nor armies nor governments can deliver God’s kind of peace. To really change a nation you must change its people from the inside out.”
He added that the post-war time brought “a unique opportunity to share with a people we have prayed for a long time.”
Brady and others frequently framed the relief efforts as something that would come as the war quickly ended and peace immediately settled upon the land.
“This isn’t relief that is going to be mass-distributed in a refugee camp,” Jim Brown, who led the IMB’s world hunger and relief work, explained in May 2003. “It will be specifically delivered to hungry families in the towns and villages of Iraq once peace has been restored to the country.”
The North American Mission Board (NAMB) joined the effort by creating prayer guides, devotionals and videos for Southern Baptists to use as they supported the work of chaplains and other Christians in Iraq. Borrowing from military language, NAMB named its initiative “Operation Prayer Cover.”
Other Southern Baptist leaders echoed Brady’s assessment that God was opening up the door for evangelism in Iraq.
“With Iraq, God has opened a door into the very heart of the Muslim world for us!” argued David Clippard, then-executive director of the Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC). “We must step through this historic opportunity. This is an unprecedented ministry opportunity of epic proportions.”
As Clippard explained his hope to work through the IMB to be a state convention partner with Iraq, he urged Southern Baptists in Missouri to join “Operation Iraqi Spiritual Freedom.”
Southern Baptist leaders who first pushed for war quickly joined those calling for evangelistic activity in the nation once the war started.
Rather than walking back their support for war, these leaders instead used the war’s devastation to justify evangelistic outreach in the nation.
Then-SBC President Jack Graham urged Southern Baptists in April 2003 to participate in relief efforts so that Iraqis would know “that God loves them and we love them.” Graham compared the effort to the biblical salvation that came to Nineveh, which is in modern-day Iraq.
Just before Graham made his plea for relief efforts, he again argued the U.S. invasion of Iraq was a “just war” because Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Graham insisted “it is only a matter of time before we find them.”
Ten years later, these weapons of mass destruction still have not emerged, and even the Bush administration quit using the argument as a justification for the war.
During the summer and fall of 2003, Baptist Press reported on various efforts in Iraq, repeatedly noting how God was opening up doors in the war-torn nation. These reports frequently blamed Hussein for the people’s current situation and portrayed the U.S. as well liked by the Iraqis.
“It makes me so proud to tell people I’m Southern Baptist,” Capt. Scott Riedel, a Southern Baptist chaplain, said about the SBC’s relief efforts. “The Iraqi people really do love America and they love us tremendously.”
In late August 2003, the distribution of food boxes from the IMB started arriving in the region. Within weeks, however, the distribution ended due to violence that prompted concern for the safety of the humanitarian workers.
After a five-week delay, distribution restarted. The exact duration of the effort was not reported, but appears to have completed by November 2003 as the IMB promoted the effort as a past endeavor.
Many of the food boxes never made it to Iraq but instead were distributed to Iraqi refugees in Jordan.
In October 2003, the Baptist Union of Iraq formed, with IMB staff present to commission leaders. Three Iraqi exiles were touted about planning to return to serve as Baptist leaders in the war-torn nation.
“This is a new phase in our mission,” said Muthafar Yacoub, moderator of the Baptist Union of Iraq and one of the three Iraqi Baptist leaders. “I invite you to share in the ministry to which God has called us and participate in this exciting adventure.”
“I think this is the time God wants to show His mercy,” stated Mishiel Edward, another of the three. “In five or 10 years, I want to see more people coming to Jesus, and the cross everywhere.”
There is no reference to the Baptist Union of Iraq in news reports or online after 2004.
In December 2003, IMB’s Brady bemoaned that few Southern Baptists took up the call to head to war-torn Iraq, calling the situation a “war for souls.”
In March 2004, four IMB aid workers were killed and another wounded in a drive-by shooting in Mosul. The shooting resulted in the cancellation of trips to Iraq from the IMB-MBC partnership. By the end of the year, the partnership dropped out of the news.
By the end of 2004, NAMB’s Iraqi prayer resource page disappeared from their website. In January 2005, the IMB shifted its “urgent” website from being “Iraq Response” to “Tsunami Response.”
By the start of 2005 – less than two years after the start of the war – Southern Baptist leaders were decrying the mass exodus of Iraq’s small Christian population as Christians fled church bombings, murders and other forms of persecution.
Since the U.S. invasion in 2003, the Christian population in Iraq has dwindled from between 1 to 1.5 million to less than 500,000. The number of Christian churches in the nation has fallen from 300 to just 57.
A decade after the start of the war, the promise of an explosive evangelistic crusade in Iraq remains unfulfilled.
As Southern Baptist leaders saw their Iraqi evangelistic hopes fall apart to growing violence and then moved on to projects in other nations, Iraqi Christians have suffered in the aftermath of the war Southern Baptist leaders promoted.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.