Bible brigade is ready to roll
Ed Helmore in New York
Sunday April 6, 2003
President Bush is under pressure to clarify his position on the role evangelical Christian aid groups are set to play in post-war Iraq.
Responding to criticism that workers from at least two evangelical groups whose leaders have denounced Islam are massing in Jordan to bring a Gospel message to Iraq's Muslims, the White House attempted to distance itself from the idea that the war is a crusade to convert the nation to Christianity.
Ari Fleischer, the White House press spokesman, said: 'The President knows Islam is a religion of peace.'
The Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan's Purse, which is run by the Rev Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, have run into trouble over the views of their leadership and their efforts to proselytise. A past leader of the Southern Baptists, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, he offended Muslims last year when he described the Prophet Muhammad as a 'paedophile' and a 'terrorist'.
Last week Graham said: 'I love the Arab world. I just disagree with their religion, and they disagree with me.'
In the past,Samaritan's Purse, a recipient of US government funding, has been warned not to mix religious and relief activities. After the Gulf war of 1991 it was accused of putting preaching before aid after distributing missionary tracts in Saudi Arabia.
Christian conservatives are among Bush's staunchest supporters, but at a time when much of the Muslim world perceives America as anti-Islam Bush cannot afford the impression that the war is indeed a crusade. US Muslim leaders say that, while Iraqis need aid, the US government should bar groups critical of the faith from working in the region.
'It would be inappropriate for these people to have any kind of American government support at a time when the entire Muslim world suspects that there is a war against Islam,' said Ibrahim Hooper, who is the spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations.
But Christian groups are concerned that a new regime in Iraq may outlaw all forms of non-Islamic worship. Iraq has 500,000 Christians who have been allowed to worship freely under Saddam Hussein. Bishop Shlemon Warduni in Baghdad warned: 'The fanatics in Iraq are using the war as an excuse to act against the Christians.'