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A crusade after all?

Plans of some Christians to evangelize as they offer aid pose dilemma for Iraqi reconstruction.

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When President Bush called his war on terrorism a "crusade," he backtracked quickly in the face of intense reaction at home and abroad. Now many people are worried that, in the case of Iraq, that inopportune choice of words may turn out to hold more than a modicum of truth.

As Christian relief agencies prepare to enter Iraq, some have announced their intent to combine aid with evangelization. They include groups whose leaders have proclaimed harshly negative views of Islam. They are also friends of the president. The White House has shrugged its shoulders, saying it can't tell private groups what to do, though legal experts disagree.

Yet to many Muslims and Christians alike, proselytizing at this highly volatile moment in the newly liberated country, with Muslims worldwide questioning US motives, could only spur outrage and undermine US policy in the region as well as in Iraq.

"Coming in the wake of a military conquest of an Arab country, and of openly hostile statements by [the Rev. Franklin] Graham and others, it's going to backfire in the worst way for US plans to be seen as a liberator," says Seyyed Hossein Nasr, professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University.

The distress over these plans reflects the increasing contention that surrounds proselytizing around the globe, as the world shrinks and faiths rub elbows and jockey for adherents. Islam and Christianity both make universal claims, and believers have the obligation to spread the message. Converts represent some 30 percent of US Muslims, for example. And within Islam, sects such as the Wahhabis have pressed their particular strain by sponsoring imams, schools, and teaching materials in many nations. Evangelical Christians mounted a global missionary effort in 2000 to reach Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists in targeted regions, including the Middle East.

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