Patriarch Emmanuel Delly, head of the Chaldean Catholic Church, said on Thursday that many Protestant activists had come to Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 and set up what he called "boutiques" to attract converts.

Delly said Iraq did not need missionaries as its Christian churches dated back long before Protestantism. As for trying to convert Muslims, he said: "You can't even talk about that here." 

Christians make up 3% of Iraq's 26 million mostly Muslim population, the largest group being the 600,000 Chaldeans who are Eastern rite Catholics linked to the Vatican.

 

Saying the evangelicals were not real missionaries, Delly said they attracted poor youths with displays of money and taking them "out riding in cars to have fun".

 

"Then they take photos and send them here, to Germany, to the United States and say 'look how many Muslims have become Christian'," he said.

 

The patriarch declined to say if the missionaries were a challenge for his church or if US authorities supported them.

 

Trying to convert Muslims

 

The idea of converting Muslims has gained some support among US evangelicals since the September 11 attacks, but foreigners who evangelise in Islamic countries must keep very low profiles.

 

Iraqi Christians' heritage dates
back about 1900 years

Some were active in Iraq in the first year after Saddam Hussein's overthrow, but deteriorating security since then probably means many have left, Baghdad residents say.

 

"There may be between 100 and 200 there now," said Todd Johnson, an expert on world Christianity at the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Seminary near Boston, Massachusetts.

 

"They're mostly aid workers, I don't think there is much regular evangelising," he said.

 

Many Muslim countries consider Christian missionaries as part of a Western campaign against Islam and punish both the preacher and the apostate Muslim severely. Unnamed Iraqi groups killed at least five evangelical missionaries last year.

 

Violent attacks

 

At least 20 Iraqis were also killed in bombings of Christian churches last year as unknown attackers stepped up pressure on non-Muslims there. Christian minorities in Muslim countries usually keep a low profile and do not evangelise.

 

Four US Baptist missionaries were killed in Iraq in March 2004 and seven South Korean Presbyterians were briefly kidnapped the following month.

 

That June, an armed group beheaded a South Korean truck driver who was an evangelical Christian.

 

Occupation

 

Delly had no overall figures for these missions but said he knew of 14 evangelical houses in one central Baghdad neighbourhood alone.

Armed guards protect Baghdad
churches after attacks in 2004

 

"I don't know where their money comes from," he added.

 

The patriarch, who vigorously opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq and met French President Jacques Chirac - who also opposed it - on Wednesday, declined to comment on Washington's policy there or whether he had contacts with US authorities.

 

"Frankly, I try to avoid meeting them as much as possible," he said. "They are the occupiers. The occupied don't want to be occupied. That's human nature."

 

Delly, 77, ranks as an archbishop in the Catholic Church and is tipped as a possible future cardinal. Eastern rite prelates traditionally do not accept such honours but three - a Copt, an Assyrian and a Maronite - are now "princes of the Church".