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American missionary shot dead in retaliation for evangelism efforts

SIDON, Lebanon (BP)–A Baptist nurse who worked at a missionary clinic was gunned down Nov. 21 in this southern Lebanese city, apparently in response to the clinic’s evangelical activities, according to the Jerusalem Post.

Bonnie Penner Witherall, 31, was shot three times in the head at close range with a 7-millimeter pistol, the police said, and collapsed in a pool of blood right inside the door of the two-story building that housed both the Unity Center clinic and an evangelical church. Police said they believe she was murdered by a lone gunman.

“The killing was the result of a hostile Muslim reaction in Sidon to the preaching and indoctrination lessons the center was giving to Muslim youths,” an unidentified Palestinian official told the Post.

The New York Times reported that clinic members had been threatened in recent months after a group of religious leaders learned they were handing out literature and talking to groups of young Muslims about Jesus. Some Muslim clerics had denounced the evangelical Christians from the pulpit.

Witherall and her British-born husband, Gary, were partner missionaries with the Christian and Missionary Alliance, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. The mission agency had been involved in a public dispute in Sidon because of evangelism efforts in the community.

Sidon’s Roman Catholic archbishop had warned Witherall that evangelistic activity might cause her problems.

“We told her she might be vulnerable to insults or even being hit, and she answered that she would consider it an honor,” said Bishop George Kwaiter, in an interview with The New York Times.

“We don’t accept this kind of preaching,” he told The Times of the proselytizing. “We reject it totally.”

The Times also reported that recent comments made by Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and TV host Pat Robertson about Muslims contributed to the negative feelings toward Christians.

“I would not think that this is our calling to say bad things about this religion,” Pierre Francis, the pastor of Mieh Mieh Baptist Church, told the Times. “They just jeopardize our safety.”

The Witheralls were members of the local Baptist congregation.

In the Nov. 22 edition of The Times of London, Witherall issued a statement forgiving his wife’s killers.

“God led us to Lebanon and we knew that we might die,” he told the London paper. “I forgive anyone who did that. It doesn’t take the pain. It’s a costly forgiveness … it cost my wife. I loved her in our marriage. We had a really lovely marriage.”

Witherall, 36, left England to become a missionary and met his wife while they were students at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. They were married five years ago and moved to Lebanon two years ago.

The shooting happened one day after the State Department issued a warning to Americans around the world to be vigilant about possible attacks.

A native of Washington, Witherall’s body is being flown to Seattle where she will be buried.

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  • Todd Starnes