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Last Updated: 03/26/2004
Evangelicals Invade Iraq
Dominic Joseph Volonnino

Evangelicals Invade Iraq


As peacekeeping forces were deployed by the American military in Iraq and bids cast for reconstruction contracts, a second invasion emerged from an unsuspected front.  Armies of Christian soldiers put on the armor of God [i] in preparation for crossing into every corner of Iraq to share their Good News.  As violence in the region subsided, front line missionaries infiltrated the borders, offering the Iraqi people physical and spiritual help in their time of crisis.  United States based evangelical NGOs and evangelical churches alike mobilized their forces to distribute humanitarian aid, as well as a plethora of Christian literature and an army of missionaries.  As the efforts were underway, the onlooking Muslim world suspiciously questioned such motives.  The war in Iraq has created a great demand for a rapid humanitarian response, to which evangelicals are responding.  Some NGOs and church denominations present such countries with practical aid, yet package it deep within a Christian witness.  Is no humanitarian aid better than humanitarian aid offered with a subliminal, ulterior motive?  Additionally, is the invasion of evangelical missionaries detrimental to the peace and security of the predominately Muslim region?  To begin debating these questions, it is imperative to understand who evangelicals are and the theological framework fueling their current mobilization efforts.

American Evangelicalism

The word ‘evangelicalism’ is rooted in the Greek word evangelion meaning “the good news” or “gospel”.  Martin Luther coined the term during the Protestant Reformation in the 17th Century and the movement caught fire for the next couple hundred of years.[ii]  By the 1820s, evangelicalism would  become the dominant expression of Christianity in the United States by the 1820s.  The movement continued to flourish as a long line of influential evangelist-revivalists such as Charles Finney, Dwight L. Moody, Billy Sunday, and Billy Graham journeyed across the country converting the masses.[iii]

Evangelical Christianity spans hundreds, if not thousands, of Protestant denominations, and includes a wide diversity of theologies, traditions, and religious expressions.  Evangelicalism transcends typical rigid religious molds, thereby making it difficult to make overarching generalization.  Wheaton College’s Center for Evangelical Studies states, “‘evangelical" denotes a style as much as a set of beliefs. As a result, groups as disparate as black Baptists and Dutch Reformed Churches, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Catholic charismatics and Southern Baptists all come under the evangelical umbrella-demonstrating just how diverse the movement really is.”[iv]  Additionally, evangelicals are not rigidly identified with a specific social class, political affiliation, or other demographic.  Statistically, according to a 2001 Gallup Poll, 40% of the American respondents identified themselves as “evangelical”[v], representing roughly 114 million Americans.  Regardless of the difficulty in generalizing American evangelicals, four common tenants are fluid throughout the diversified expressions of evangelical faith[vi]:  Emphasis on the personal conversion experience; the Bible as the authoritative source of the knowledge of God; the Lordship of Jesus Christ for salvation; and emphasis on evangelism.  

The Personal Conversion Experience:  American Evangelicalism is typically individualist in nature and emphasizes the need for a personal repentance and a conversion experience.  Jesus stated, “I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.”[vii]  The process of becoming born again involves a personal confession of one’s sinful nature and repentance into a new life under the lordship of Jesus Christ.  This process is spiritually significant as the individual’s old sinful self dies off and the individual is born again under the Lordship of Christ.  Christ’s sacrifice on the cross atones for the sins of mankind, enabling a renewed relationship with God, resulting in an individual’s reward of eternal life.   To the evangelical, this process is highly individualistic which involves an intimate, experiential and growing relationship with God throughout his or her life.

Lordship of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit:  A familiar Scripture passage reads, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believe in him shall not perish but have eternal life”.[viii]  To the Christian and evangelical alike, Jesus is God incarnate; fully man and fully God at the same time.  Jesus himself declared, “I am the way and the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through Me.”[ix] 

Centrality of the Bible:  Generally, evangelicals adhere to Scripture as the inerrant source of Truth and knowledge of the Almighty, and is the authoritative source to live a righteous life pleasing to God.  The book of Hebrew in the New Testament records, “For the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”[x]  The apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is God breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”[xi]  Evangelicals highly elevate the importance of the Scripture.  Hermeneutical and exegesis examination is therefore important, both individually and communally, to grow in the knowledge of God.

            Evangelism:  After his death and resurrection Jesus commanded his disciples, “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[xii]  Moreover, Jesus empowered his disciples saying, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.”[xiii]  Evangelicals are not only obligated to fulfill the ‘Great Commission’ under the direct command of Christ himself, but additionally feel a personal burden or zeal.  This passion is fueled for various reasons, depending on the individual and religious tradition.  Jonathan Bonk, editor of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research, states, “It’s normal for Christians to want to proclaim the gospel.  From their perspective, its really good news, and to ignore that is to abdicate one’s responsibility, not only to God but to one’s neighbor.”[xiv]  To many, the acceptance of a personal relationship with Christ was a joyous turning point in their lives, so much so that they desire to altruistically extend that joy to others in the form of evangelism.  Theologically, individuals experience complete forgiveness from God for all past sins, inherit a new identity as a son or daughter of the Creator, receive a purpose for the present life and a promise of eternal life in paradise in the world to come. 

The means to proselytizing takes various forms cross-culturally.  Proselytizing cross-culturally is stereotypically understood as missionaries being sent out or commissioned to a particular field where he or she will perform any number of ministry services: Bible studies, street evangelism, university ministries, etc.  The individual and his/ her family is financially and spiritually supported either by their local church, their religious denomination or by a Christian NGO. In most cases, the individual raises support through the solicitation of their personal networks.  Tent-makers (also known as relational evangelists) are another form of the evangelical missionary.  The term was coined from the Apostle Paul who used a trade (tent making) as a means to financially support himself in his evangelistic efforts, thereby relieving the financial burden of his supporting church in Jerusalem.   Present day tent-makers attempt to enter countries typically opposed to proselytizing under the guise of providing professional services.  They provide an array of skills.  Anything from medical, legal, computer, and teaching skills are provided and are usually welcome, particularly in developing nations.  The tent-maker assimilates into a local community, uses his or her skills, and seeks to evangelize through newly built relationships.  Relational evangelism tends to be culturally sensitive and less obtrusive compared to the traditional style missionary.  However, a certain level of forging the truth is commonly exhibited to get past the ‘customs desk’ of unwelcoming countries.  Morally disturbing to some, each new friend or relationship becomes a potential convert to the tent maker.  Both types of common missionaries have a massive arsenal of Christian resources developed (tracts, Bibles in thousands of languages, videos, music, radio, literature, etc) to aid their efforts.

Urgency to Convert Muslims

Many evangelicals operate under the assumption that whoever is not born again is sinful, lost, has the wrath of God on their head, and are therefore desperately in need Christ’s grace and redemption.  Without salvation, individuals will continue to live hopeless and meaningless lives, after which, they will spend the rest of eternity suffering in hell.  With this theological background, one can obviously understand the necessity and urgency for evangelicals to passionately spread the Gospel.  Due to the imperative nature of evangelism, other religions are naturally perceived as a theologically threatening forces which deceives individuals from knowing Christ’s grace and love.

            Specifically, to the adamant, fundamental evangelical Christian, Islam is generally seen as a spiritually oppressive religion used as a tool by Satan to keep God’s children from entering the Kingdom of God.  Recently, the Ethics & Public Policy Center and BeliefNet surveyed 350 top evangelical leaders.  Interestingly, it found, “81% believe it is ‘very important’ and 16% ‘somewhat important’ to ‘evangelize Muslims in other countries.’ The survey showed that evangelical leaders feel an intense obligation to spread the gospel and help Muslims. The survey also found that 77% of the nation’s 350 top evangelical leaders hold a negative view of Islam, and 70% believe it is a ‘religion of violence’.  And despite President Bush’s repeated statements since September 11, only 10% believe Islam is a ‘religion of peace’” [xv]  Jerry Vines, former head of the Southern Baptist Convention,  representing 16 million American evangelicals, has even described the prophet Mohammed as a “demon possessed paedophile”.[xvi]  Additionally, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals recently stated, “The Christian God encourages freedom, love, forgiveness, prosperity and health.  The Muslim god appears to value the opposite.”[xvii]  Furthermore, the mission statement of evangelistic Ministry to Muslims, which prepares more than 20,000 missionaries to work in Islamic countries, says, “God is not willing that Muslims, the descendants of Ishmael, should be without an adequate witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[xviii]    One could make the conclusion then that evangelicals do not generally think highly of Islam.  It is under these theological convictions that evangelicals find their purpose and urgency in evangelizing, particularly in Muslim communities.  Interestingly, their actions reflect their beliefs: in only 13 years, from 1990 to the present, the number of missionaries in Islamic countries has remarkably quadrupled.[xix]   

Iraq: An “Open Door” for Evangelism  

            In the 1980s, evangelist Luis Bush (no relation to President Bush) identified that most of the world’s unpreached and unevangelized souls exists within the coined “10/40 Window”, the 10 by 40 degree geographic area north of the equator.  Since then, evangelicals have concentrated their evangelistic efforts within this region.  Once President Bush declared that the war in Iraq was officially over, evangelicals took advantage of the historic opportunity to both provide humanitarian aid to suffering Iraqis with hopes of converting the 24 million Iraqi within this 10/40 Window. A war for souls was quickly underway, as evangelicals feared the new Iraqi government might close all evangelistic opportunities.  Some examples of recent activity include: the United Bible Society and the International Bible Society will soon distribute 20,000 copies of a children’s Bible in the Kurdish language in northern Iraq.[xx]  Such an effort would have been impossible a year ago under Saddam’s regime.  Over 50,000 booklets were also created for Iraqis entitled, “Christ has brought peace!”[xxi] Global Opportunities, an evangelical NGO which serves to mobilize tent-makers, stated that the Arab Gulf region is a “bonanza” for engineer tent-makers.[xxii]   Seattle-based World Concern, a Christian humanitarian organization that provides emergency relief and community development, has also been active in Iraq.  Recently it has joined a faith-based consortium with other relief agencies to respond to the Iraqi refugees crossing into Jordan. Its transit camp serves the physical needs of up to five thousand people per day. Additionally, it has initiated a “life saving” food parcel distribution to 12,500 people per month, and plans to double that amount soon.[xxiii]  Many evangelical groups large and small are responding, but two of the biggest players are the Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan’s Purse. 

Southern Baptist Convention 

            Even before the war was officially over, the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States representing 16 million people, was waiting on the border of Jordan waiting to respond to the physical and spiritual needs of the Iraqi people.[xxiv]  $200,000 was immediately spent in hunger funds and another $50,000 in basic human needs such as blankets and bottles. Five water purification units were also shipped, and another five were promised.[xxv]   In March 2003 Southern Baptist spokesperson Mark Kelly said, “Much more will follow, along with a more overt spiritual emphasis.”[xxvi]  Additionally, local churches throughout the States assembled 45,000 boxes of food as a gift to the Iraqi people.  Each 70 pound box of food, which was created at a cost of about $60, was packed with flour, sugar and necessities, enough to feed a family of four for several weeks.[xxvii]  Congregations were strictly informed not to insert Christian literature in the boxes to avoid having an ulterior motive to the aid.  However, the outside of each food box reads, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”[xxviii]  (Interesting choice of verses for the Muslim recipients).  Teams of career missionaries and short term volunteers mobilized to handle the logistics and distribution. The testimonies of returning volunteers drench with tearful emotions of suffering people who have waited their whole lives for their box of food and prayer afterward.  Another round of deliveries is currently being financed and prepared.  The Baptists also have hopes of feeding as many as ten thousand people per day in Southern Iraq if the finances can be procured.  In addition, a long term strategy plan is currently underway to establish long term programs.  Top priority needs to include, medical, dental, construction, agricultural, livestock, logistics and fish farm experts.[xxix]  Brian Barlow, a Southern Baptist worker in Jordan said, “It will be critical for our volunteers to set up micro projects in villages to meet needs and show people we care about them.”[xxx]

            In public, the Southern Baptists put emphasis on their delivery of food parcels and their medical work.  However, their fund-raising materials and bulletins emphasize the missions aspect.  One bulletin recounts the words of a returned volunteer, “It breaks my heart to think about them… in their poverty.  These kids are starved for attention, and I could tell some of them have not eaten well. But their biggest need is to know the love of Jesus Christ.”[xxxi]  Another bulletin quoted a returning volunteer saying Iraqis understood “who was bringing the food… It was the Christians from America”.[xxxii]   In truth, the Southern Baptist have been rather straightforward about their true motive.  John Brady, Northern Africa and Middle East outreach director for the Southern Baptist said, “Southern Baptists must understand there is a war for souls under way in Iraq. We must respond with a cup of cold water in Christ’s name and we must let the Iraqi people see Jesus in us so plainly that they will never thirst again.  Even after the war is over, the Iraqi people will not know real peace unless they have God’s peace within their hearts.  If we know the heart of God, we surely know the will of God on the question of Iraq.”[xxxiii] Since the end of the war, the Southern Baptist have already distributed 8,000 Arabic language New Testaments’ into Iraq, with a goal of distributing a million more along with Arabic religious videos and Christian tracts.[xxxiv]  Tens of thousands of missionaries have already volunteered to answer the call and be sent as missionaries to Iraq. Unfortunately for them, fundraising zeal has not equaled the potential manpower to support the massive Christian army waiting for their mission. 

Samaritan’s Purse

            Samaritan’s Purse is a nondenominational evangelical organization which provides spiritual and physical aid in more than a hundred countries.  For over twenty years, it has “helped meet the needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease and famine with the purpose of sharing God’s love through His Son, Jesus Christ.”[xxxv]  Like the Southern Baptists, Samaritan’s Purse was prepared to help since the war ended in Iraq.  Since then, the organization has imported a water system to provide drinking water for up to 20,000 people, distributed 5,000 hygiene kits, 5,000 kits of pots and utensils, material to build temporary shelters for more than 4,000 people, and enough medicine to treat 100,000 people for three months.[xxxvi]  Although it provides relief and humanitarian aid, the organization clearly reveals it is ultimately interested in Christian conversions.  Ken Isaacs, international director of projects, said, “We go where we have the opportunity to meet needs.  We do not deny the name of Christ. We believe in sharing him in deed and in word. We’ll be who we are.”[xxxvii] 

Samaritan’s Purse recently received a notable amount of notoriety when its president Franklin Graham (son of famous evangelist Billy Graham) called Islam, “a very evil and wicked religion” and refused to make apologies.  In Graham’s book, The Name, he wrote, “The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith… the two are different as lightness and darkness.”[xxxviii]  Muslims were outraged.  Due to the overtly evangelist mission statement of the organization, in addition to this comment by Graham, has upset many Muslims that Samaritan’s Purse is playing such a dominant role in Iraqi relief efforts.  Hodan Hassan, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, “Given his [Graham’s] past viewpoints, people are suspicious about his real aim, which could be to take advantage of a situation in which people are desperate.”[xxxix]  Colleague Ibrahim Cooper agrees, “He’s going into Iraq in the wake of an invading army to convert people to Christianity. Nothing good is coming of that.”[xl]

Tensions Rising

            As American evangelicals are attempting to capitalize on this unique, open-door opportunity, Muslims are increasingly becoming angry, second guessing the motives of the evangelicals humanitarian efforts.  “They go after them when they’re most vulnerable and hope they can get them to leave their faith. It’s a very despicable practice” said Hooper of the Council of American-Islamic Relations.[xli]  Muslims do not easily separate American politics with the dominant American religion.   In the United States, where church and state is adamantly adhere to, the Bush administration has come under criticism for unofficially giving the green light to these evangelic groups.  They are particularly suspicious of the evangelical agenda since Bush himself  became a born-again Christian in the 1980s under the council of Billy Graham.  Throughout the war, the Bush administration has unsuccessfully tried to convince the Muslim world that the war in Iraq is not a crusade against Islam.  Unfortunately, the war did its damage on the Muslim psyche and now the influx of evangelicals is confirming the suspicions.  “The impression this gives to people, whether it is true or not, is that there may be a motive of the [Bush] administration that they’re not openly stating, that they want to change the underlying nature of the region, and part of that is to push Christianity” stated Ingrid Mattson, vice president of the Islamic Society of North America.[xlii]   Some evangelicals have been warning of the potential disaster, “The region is at a pivotal and volatile juncture, and it is arguably not the time for groups coming in, like someone with a lighted match into a room full of explosives, wearing Jesus on their sleeves.”[xliii]   Muslim expert Charles Kimball agrees that postwar proselytizing by American Christians in Iraq is a bad idea saying, “This is an area that is living with the history of the Crusades and in the shadow of colonialism.”[xliv]  Religious and cultural tensions are being strained.  The short and long term repercussions are difficult to determine, and only time will tell the degree to which the tensions were simmering.  


The evangelical response in Iraq raises important moral questions regarding international development and relief.  Is humanitarian aid served with an ulterior motive better than no aid offered at all?  Obviously, it would be a public outrage if humanitarian aid was withheld without a conversion, and I suspect such despicable behavior is uncommon.  Massive humanitarian crises exist all over the world and responses are desperately needed to alleviate human suffering.  Ideally, it would best if evangelical Christians extended a helping hand in Iraq with no other purpose than to serve the best interests of the Iraqi people.  There are many reputable Christian organization that do provide aid with no strings attached and with no proselytizing agenda.  World Vision International has such a reputation. Tom Getman, director of humanitarian aid and international relations for WVI said, “We have a policy that we must never use a gift to persuade people to believe as we believe.”[xlv]   But even if an ulterior proselytizing motive existed, don’t individuals still have the conscious choice to believe or not to believe in their own free will?

It comes to no surprise that many religious groups, including evangelical Christians, have active agendas of both proselytizing and extending humanitarian aid.  Certainly there are tendencies for the two agendas to mix, as we can see with the evangelicals in Iraq.  Should all religious groups be prevented from providing help because some do not know how to offer aid in a culturally sensitive manner?  What if evangelicals are not willing to consider the peace and security consequences of their actions, as well as the potential strains to Christian-Islamic relations?  When should governments exercise their authority and intervene for the sake of political stability. The Bush administration has not prevent the recent influx of evangelicals despite the controversy in the Muslim world.  These questions, in addition to thousands more, force us to grapple with the incredibly complex, yet hugely influential religious issues which contribute to the current events, both on subtle and overt levels. 




“Bible Belt Missionaries Set Out on a ‘War for Souls’ in Iraq”. Telegraph News.  27 Dec. 2003. <>.


Bos, Stephan J. “First Children’s Bible for Northern Iraq’s Kurds”. ASSIST News Service (ANS).    29 July 2003. <>.


Caldwell, Deborah. “Why Iraq Beckons:  Why Iraq Beckons:  Why are Evangelical Christians so Urgently Insistent Upon Helping Right There, Right  Now?”. BeliefNet. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2004.  <>.


Caldwell, Deborah. “Poised and Ready: The Evangelist Who Called Islam ‘Wicked’ is Ready to Bring Humanitarian Aid to Muslims in Iraq”. BeliefNet. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2004.    <>.  


Camp., Ken. “U.S. Baptist Groups Sending Relief to Iraq”.  ABPNews. 1 May 2003. <>. 


Cienski, Jan. “Growing Movement in U.S. to Convert Muslims after being Shut out by Saddam”.  The Vancouver Sun. 17 April 2003. <>.


Creswell, Mike. “Iraqis Cheer as Southern Baptist Volunteers Distribute Food”.  International Mission Board Press Room. 12 Nov. 2003. <>.


Creswell, Mike. “Iraq Outreach a Life-Changing Experience, Volunteers Say”. International Mission Board Press Room. 12 Nov. 2003. <>.

Creswell, Mike. “Iraq’s Need for Peace Cries Out for Prayer, Action”. International Mission Board Press Room. 10 April 2003. <>. 


Creswell, Mike. “Southern Baptist Gear up to Minister in Post-War Iraq”.  International Mission Board Press Room. 16 April 2003. <>.


Defining Evangelicalism”. Institute for the Study of Evangelical Americans. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2004.  <>.


“Evangelical Views of Islam”. EPPC/ Beliefnet. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2004.  <>.


Excerpt of Samaritan’s Purse mission statement,


“Franklin Graham Under Fire for Offering Food, Supplies to Iraq”. E.P. News. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2004. <>. 


“Iraq War is ‘Pivotal Movement”. TC Online. May-June 2003. <>.


Marus, Robert. “Should Christian Missionaries have Role in Iraq Relief?”. ABPNews. 15 May 2003. <>. 


“Missionaries Rush to Iraq, Fear Door May be Closed Soon”.  IslamOnline. 29 Dec. 2003. <>.


“Mr. Bush and the Almighty”.  International News.  30 Nov. 2003. <>.


OKeefe, Mark. “Christian Missions to Offer Aid, Faith”.  Newhouse News Service. 27 March 2003. <>.

OKeefe, Mark. “Plans Under Way for Christianizing the Enemy”. Newhouse News Service. 25 March 2003. <>.

OKeefe, Mark. “Relief Groups Debate Wisdom of Proselytizing Christianity while Aiding Nation of Muslims”.  Ventura County Star. 5 April 2003. <>. 


“Proselytizing in Postwar Iraq?” The Christian Century Foundation. 19 April 2003.  <>.


The Bible, New International Version


The Gospel in Iraq: Relief Groups Debate Wisdom of Proselytizing Christianity while Aiding Nation of Muslims”. Vendura County Star.  5 April 2003. <>.

“U.S Turns Blind Eye to ‘Proselytizing’ in Iraq”.  IslamOnline. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2004.  <>.

Van Biema. “Missionaries Under Cover”. Time Magazine. 22 June 2003.   <>. 

“World Concern Continues ‘Life-Saving’ Distribution Program in Iraq Despite Obstacles”. World Concern Website. 18 July 2003. <>. 


[i] Evangelical-specific terminology italicized throughout paper

[ii] “Defining Evangelicalism”. Institute for the Study of Evangelical Americans. Retrieved 18 Jan. 2004.  <>.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Note: While theologians differ on how many tenants are core, I propose only these four are central and absolutely essential to the evangelical faith.  Others add the role of the community of believers, Lordship of the Holy Spirit, and/ or focus on heaven/ eternal life.

[vii] The Bible, John 3:3 NIV

[viii] The Bible, John 3:16 NIV

[ix] The Bible, John 14:6 NIV

[x] The Bible, Hebrews 4:12 NIV

[xi] The Bible, 2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV

[xii] The Bible, Matthew 28:19-20 NIV

[xiii] The Bible, Acts 1:8, NIV

[xiv] “The Gospel in Iraq: Relief Groups Debate Wisdom of Proselytizing Christianity while Aiding Nation of Muslims”. Vendura County Star.  5 April 2003. <>.

[xv]  “Evangelical Views of Islam”. EPPC/ Beliefnet. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2004.  <>.

[xvi] “Bible Belt Missionaries Set Out on a ‘War for Souls’ in Iraq”. Telegraph News.  27 Dec. 2003. <>.

[xvii] “Mr. Bush and the Almighty”.  International News.  30 Nov. 2003. <>.

[xviii] Cienski, Jan. “Growing Movement in U.S. to Convert Muslims after being Shut out by Saddam”.  The Vancouver Sun. 17 April 2003. <>.

Dominic Joseph Volonnino can be contacted at: