Evangelists Face Suspicion in Lebanon

Last week's killing of an American Christian missionary in southern Lebanon highlights the suspicion evangelists face in Lebanon from both Muslim as well as established Christian sects who accuse them of seeking converts.

About 400 people attended a memorial service Sunday for Bonnie Penner, 31, who was shot by a gunman Thursday shortly after opening an evangelical center's clinic in Sidon where she worked as a nurse. Investigators are trying to determine whether her killing was linked to rising anti-U.S. sentiments in the Middle East or to her missionary work in a Muslim town.

No Muslim clergyman attended the memorial service. In the past, Muslim clerics in Sidon have accused the Unity Center, where Penner worked, of trying to indoctrinate the city's youth in favor of Christianity.

Conversion is a divisive subject in the overwhelmingly Islamic Arab world. Leaving Islam or encouraging others to do so is considered a crime in some countries.

In Lebanon, a sectarian but largely liberal community of Muslims and Christians, conversions are not banned. But the issue is sensitive because of past sectarian conflicts.

Lebanon's Christian and Muslim factions fought a 15-year civil war that ended in 1990. Resentments still simmer beneath a power-sharing arrangement that stipulates the president must be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the parliament speaker a Shiite Muslim. Parliament must be evenly divided despite a growing Muslim population that puts the Christians in the minority.

A population census hasn't been conducted since 1932. Any moves, even by Protestants that might affect the population balance seen as justifying that power-sharing arrangement are viewed with suspicion. Protestants have separate political representation on the slate of "minorities."

Protestant missionaries have operated in Lebanon for over a century. In the 19th century, they set up a college that later became the prestigious American University of Beirut.

Over the decades missionaries have been viewed with suspicion by both Muslim and Christian communities. Most Lebanese Christians belong to eastern churches.

But evangelicals, who did not take part in the civil war, have not been targets of violence and were considered on the fringe of political and social life.

The U.S. Embassy said it was too early to speculate on a motive in Penner's killing. A senior Lebanese security officer, speaking on condition of anonymity Monday, said investigators were leaning toward linking the killing to anti-American rather than anti-evangelical sentiment.

Penner was the first American killed in over a decade in a country where Americans were regularly targeted during the civil war.

Sheik Maher Hammoud, a hard-line Sunni Muslim cleric in the southern port city of Sidon, has criticized the Unity Center, saying its missionary work was closer to Judaism than Christianity. Anti-Jewish sentiment is high in Lebanon.

A group of Muslim political and religious leaders in Beirut known as the "Hamad Cell" denounced Penner's killing, but charged that "American espionage" helps Israel enter the "Lebanese arena even in the guise of missionaries."

Bishop George Kuweiter of the Greek Catholic Church said after the killing that there are "cells" that operate in the guise of Christianity.

"Even we wonder who is behind them, who brought them and in whose name they operate," he said of the Unity Center.

Penner's husband, Garry Witherall, has defended the center's work.

"We are not here for politics or to convert people. The message that we have is forgiveness and to love each other," he told a group offering condolences on Sunday, including Sidon's legislator, Bahiya Hariri, a Muslim.