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U.S. missionaries knew the risks of helping Iraqis

By Thom Patterson

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(CNN) -- Baptist missionaries Carrie and David McDonnall had been married less than a year before they decided to help Iraqis rebuild from the destruction of the war.

While the Texas couple were laying the foundation of their marriage, they were helping Iraqis by distributing food, organizing relief projects, performing odd jobs or renovating schools.

Colleagues said they knew they were doing a dangerous job in a dangerous part of the world.

"With all the precautions you can reasonably take, there are risks, and these folks were well aware of those risks," said Erich Bridges of the International Mission Board.

Since the end of 2002, eight of the group's missionaries have been killed in attacks, including the four in Iraq, three in Yemen and one in the Philippines, Bridges said.

On Monday, while scouting sites for a water purification plant, the McDonnalls and three other American missionaries were gunned down by unknown assailants in the northern city of Mosul.

Carrie, 26, was seriously wounded. Her husband, 29, died the next day while being transported to a military hospital in Baghdad.

Immediately killed in the attack were missionaries Larry and Jean Elliot of Cary, North Carolina, and Karen Watson of Bakersfield, California.

Carrie McDonnall is listed in critical condition, according to the International Mission Board, a missionary organization of the Southern Baptist Church based in Richmond, Virginia.

She underwent surgery in Iraq and is expected to be transported to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, according to the McDonnalls' school, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth.

Seminary President Paige Patterson, who happens to be in Europe on other business, arrived Tuesday in Frankfurt, Germany, hoping to see Carrie McDonnall at the nearby Landstuhl U.S. military hospital.

Patterson said he expected McDonnall to be transported from Iraq to the hospital on Wednesday. "We continue to find it amazing that people of a violent turn will take out people who are there purely on humanitarian aid grounds, and trying to help them," Patterson said. "But that's the violence that's typical of our world now, unfortunately."

Patterson said he has been updated on McDonnall's condition by the water purification company the missionaries were working with in Iraq. "She has been hit a great many times," he said, adding that he was told doctors were hopeful that McDonnall would survive.

He said he did not know if McDonnall has been conscious since the attack.

Relentless compassion

Brennen Searcy, 28, befriended and worked closely with the McDonnalls in Iraq last June as the couple celebrated their first wedding anniversary.

Carrie Taylor McDonnall, 26, remains in critical condition.

On Tuesday, Searcy spoke of the pleasant memories of that experience and of the McDonnalls' devotion to their missionary work. "David's compassion toward the Iraqi people was just relentless," said Searcy, a student at the Fort Worth seminary. "He was unwavering in his determination to do whatever could be done to help the Iraqi people, to show compassion to them."

The McDonnalls' compassion manifested itself in many ways, Searcy said, "whether it would be helping a guy with his truck or carrying wood and paint to renovate an elementary school."

"They loved the Iraqi people so much that they were willing to sacrifice everything," Searcy said. "David has made the ultimate sacrifice so that [the message of Christianity] can be taken to the Iraqi people."

Aware of the dangers

Larry Elliott, 60, and Jean Elliott, 58, were new to Iraq after serving as missionaries for more than 20 years in Honduras. Among other projects, Larry Elliott drilled wells and set up water purification plants for Honduran communities.

Lyle Milligan, 53, befriended the Elliotts about two years ago during a 10-day visit to Honduras for a project to build pulpits and pews for churches. "They loved people," Milligan said. "I think that just their love for people was what stood out most. I think another important part of that was how the Honduran people loved them back. They were there for 24 years and they had a great relationship with the people there."

Milligan said the Elliotts were well aware of the dangers their Iraq mission would pose and expressed concern about the possibility they might not return home alive.

Milligan is music director at the Baptist Temple Church in Reidsville, North Carolina.

'A passion to serve people'

Watson, 38, had been "in and around Iraq for about a year working in relief projects and coordinating volunteers who came in and did many, many things," said Bridges of the International Mission Board. "She had just a passion to serve people and to love people," Bridges said.

"That was her whole motivation from the beginning of her spiritual life, and she followed through on it so beautifully."

Watson had quit her job with California's Kern County Sheriff's Department to become a missionary, Bridges said.

More than 5,000 Southern Baptist missionaries are spreading their religious message outside the United States, Bridges said.

A missionary "rule of thumb" in the Muslim world, Bridges said, is to preach the Christian faith only if directly asked about it. "We were not engaged in any direct evangelism of any kind and are not engaged in that in Iraq," he said.

"You express the love of Christ in a culture that is potentially hostile or a Muslim culture not through a direct, heavy-handed evangelism," Bridges said, "but through service -- serving the people and earning the right to be friends and building those relationships."

Instructing their missionaries about security is a priority, Bridges said, particularly in places such as Iraq.

Security training includes "being careful regarding movement, identification. But there are limits in a place like Iraq. We're seeing now an apparent trend toward targeting foreign relief workers, targeting American civilians ... and now our workers."

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