World becoming riskier place for missionaries, experts

NEW YORK -- The recent missionary deaths in Peru underscore the escalating risks that confront Protestant missionaries in remote areas of Latin America beset by guerrilla warfare and drug trafficking.

U.S. Baptist missionary Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her infant daughter, Charity, were killed last Friday, not by criminals but by military forces targeting criminals.

Peru's air force mistakenly shot down their airplane.

Most experts agree that security is an increasing concern for the 10,700 U.S. Protestant missionaries currently working in Latin America.

"Missionary work has always been hazardous, said Ralph Winter of the U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, Calif. "But now, especially in southern Colombia, it's utterly unthinkable."

"There's more danger in the area of radical groups rising up and grabbing missionaries. We're way out in the jungle and have no defenses, no arms," said Scott Ross, staff lawyer for New Tribes Mission of Sanford, Fla., whose 3,500 missionaries work with indigenous people in remote areas. "We're a soft target if somebody wants to grab our people."

Wilbert Shenk, professor of missions history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., said one factor in the rising tension is the changing geography of Latin American work.

Though Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant groups are based largely in cities, energetic evangelical groups dispatch sizable numbers into remote areas where few foreigners have ventured before.

"It takes something of the heroic spirit to pursue this kind of missionary work," Shenk said. "They are going into areas where there are no roads, transportation is a problem, and all the obstacles are there.

"In the Protestant imagination, the idea of frontiers, the `regions beyond' or `unreached peoples,' is an embedded impulse," Shenk said.

New Tribes, which says its goal of putting an indigenous church in every tribe on earth within a generation "is a cause worth living for, even dying for," has been especially security conscious since 1993.

That year, guerrillas kidnapped New Tribes staffers Dave Mankins, Mark Rich and Rick Tenenoff in Panama, took them to Colombia and demanded a $5 million ransom. Contact with the guerrillas ceased a year later.

Since then there have been reports and rumors -- and innumerable prayers -- but the three are still missing.

On Monday, New Tribes sent an official into Colombia in the latest effort to get information.

"The families really need closure on this," Ross said.

It is one of at least eight incidents since 1985 in which Latin American guerrillas or drug traffickers have killed or abducted U.S. Protestant missionaries.

The New Tribes kidnappings increased caution among the 300 other U.S.-based Protestant mission boards working in Latin America, said Michael Loftis, president of the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism in New Cumberland, Pa., the group that Bowers represented.

Loftis said his group advises missionaries that "you should know your neighbors."

Missionaries continually check the State Department's Web site and other sources for warnings on terrorist activity, he said.

"We basically advise our people to do what they're told and offer no resistance," Loftis said. "Normally, that kind of advice has saved lives."

Before the Bowers' airplane was shot down in Peru, the association's most recent death involved Harold Davis, gunned down in Bogota, Colombia, in 1993 during an apparent mugging.

Like New Tribes, Wycliffe Bible Translators of Orlando, Fla., work in remote areas. Its 6,000 missionaries live with indigenous groups that lack the Bible and learn local languages to produce translations.

Unlike other mission executives, Wycliffe's public affairs director, Kent Hirschelman, said his board is no more security-conscious in recent years than before.

"We always try to be aware of what's around us and act wisely," he said.