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U.S. military strikes against Iraq put Baptist chaplains, missionaries to t

WASHINGTON (BP)–At the outset of military strikes against Iraq on Dec. 16, Southern Baptist chaplains were alongside U.S. troops while Southern Baptist missionaries in the Middle East were in prayer and taking precautions.
Meanwhile in Washington, impeachment proceedings were derailed, if only for a day, against President Clinton for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice stemming from his adulterous relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
The military action against Iraq, dubbed “Operation Desert Fox,” is being led the United States with British assistance. It began with more than 200 Tomahawk missiles fired from U.S. Navy ships in the Persian Gulf at 3 p.m. Eastern time Dec. 16. The air strikes are expected to continue three or four days, according to news reports, perhaps ending with the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan when a crescent moon appears in the sky on or around Dec. 20.
The attack against Iraq was described as the largest since the 1991 Persian Gulf War and as several times larger than U.S. strikes against Iraq in September 1996 and July 1993. At issue is Iraq’s unfulfilled commitment at the end of the 1991 Persian Gulf War to allow United Nations inspections of Iraqi locations believed to be manufacturing or storing weapons of mass destruction, such as nuclear arms or components, poison gas or other biological/chemical weaponry. The chief U.N. inspector filed the latest report critical of Iraq Dec. 15, citing continuing and systematic obstruction and non-compliance.
Robert Vickers, director of chaplaincy for the North American Mission Board, said a number of Southern Baptist military chaplains are in the Persian Gulf — in the aircraft carrier groups in the gulf or on their way there, in Kuwait and Bahrain. Others are being deployed with the units they serve or waiting to learn if their units will be sent to the gulf.
“Wherever the soldiers go, the chaplains go,” Vickers said. Southern Baptists account for 1,000 military chaplains, 400 of whom are on active duty, he said.
More than 12,000 Navy and Marine personnel were in the Persian Gulf area — aboard 15-plus ships, with some 100 aircraft — at the outset of the U.S. attacks against Iraq, according to USA Today. Also in the region were 3,000 Army troops in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The Air Force, meanwhile, was operating 119 aircraft from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the British island of Diego Garcia, the newspaper reported.
Vickers encouraged prayer for the safety, courage and strength of the chaplains and the soldiers they serve in the midst of a combat situation.
For the chaplains who remain in the States, Vickers encouraged prayer for their ministry to soldiers’ families, in the midst of anxieties and complexities facing military personnel during such times.
Missionaries in the Middle East, meanwhile, are asking Southern Baptists to pray for a quick end to the conflict so God’s work would not be hindered, said Gerry Volkart, associate director for the International Mission Board’s work in the region.
“We’d ask people to pray things would be settled quickly so missionaries can get on with the work they are there to do,” she said. “We’d ask people to pray that innocent lives would be protected.
“Missionaries also realize that the time before Ramadan is a crucial time when Muslims seek God and missionaries have opportunities to share the gospel. It would be very positive if the conflict would be settled so people can participate in Ramadan.”
Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic year, is a celebration involving the Koran, the holy book revelation Muslims believe the prophet Mohammed began receiving from the angel Gabriel on the 27th day of the month in 610 A.D. Faithful Muslims abstain from food, drink and tobacco products from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan, and they are to display increased tolerance and sympathy for the poor.
Volkart noted that Southern Baptists who work in the Middle East, like missionaries in many parts of the world, have a plan for evacuating in case of emergency. So far, however, none of the workers in the Middle East have felt the need to implement those plans.
The only immediate consequence of the missile attacks on Iraq was that a language school in the region was closed because most of the students are internationals, many of them from the West.
Southern Baptist workers in Israel, like the rest of that country’s population, broke out gas masks they keep on hand for a crisis that might include missile attacks. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq attacked Israel with missiles capable of carrying chemical weapons.
Southern Baptists have no workers on the ground in Iraq, Volkart said.
In Washington, the House of Representatives leadership delayed the debate on impeachment scheduled for Dec. 17 and instead passed a resolution in support of the military forces involved in the strikes against Iraq. The resolution passed by a vote of 417-5.
At midday Dec. 17, news reports indicated the House would begin debate on impeachment Dec. 18. Speaker of the House Bob Livingston, R.-La., was expected to announce the House schedule later in the day.
While some congressional Republicans, including Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R.-Miss., criticized the timing of the attack on Iraq because it came on the eve of the scheduled impeachment debate, some conservative Christian leaders said questions about the timing were to be expected.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, expressed skepticism about the timing, although he said he supported the strikes. The attack was “long overdue” and should have occurred “last year or the year before,” Land said.
“The fact that this is an issue points up the fact that the president has lost the moral authority and the trust necessary to govern.” Land said Dec. 17 on the ERLC’s nationwide radio program, “For Faith and Family.”
Clinton “has fallen below the threshold of what is necessary to be able to effectively serve in office,” Land said.
“It is example No. 1 that when you have lied to the American people as often and with such apparent sincerity and such apparent earnestness as the president has, at some point you lose your ability to have the people trust you,” said Land, who has called for Clinton to resign since he acknowledged in August he misled others about having an inappropriate relationship with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. “I really don’t believe that a responsible, credible person can take anything that the president of the United States says at face value.
“The president has fallen into the category that I was warned against and probably most of our listeners were warned against when they were children. If you cry, ‘Wolf,’ and there’s no wolf, then soon people don’t believe you when there really is a wolf.”
Christian Coalition Executive Director Randy Tate said, according to The Washington Times, “The fact that we’re questioning the veracity of the bombing shows how low President Clinton is on the credibility meter. With the appearance of delay, everyone is questioning the president’s motives. No one believes what he has to say.”
The Christian Coalition conducted a petition drive in support of impeachment.
Clinton, in a 15-minute address to the country Dec. 16, made a brief allusion to the military action’s timing, stating, “Saddam Hussein and other enemies of peace may have thought that the serious debate before the House of Representatives would distract Americans or weaken our resolve to face him down. But once more, the United States has proven that although we are never eager to use force, when we must act in America’s vital interests, we will do so.”
Compiled by Art Toalston, with reporting by Tom Strode, Mark Kelly & Martin King.