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.
Veronica "Roni" Bowers and her infant daughter Charity were killed a week ago, not by criminals but by military forces targeting criminals that mistakenly shot down a missionary airplane.
Most experts agree that security is an increasing concern for the 10,700 U.S. Protestant missionaries currently working in Latin America. Particularly since World War II, Protestants have moved into remote terrain where the main danger used to be medical problems.
"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."
'Missionary work has always been hazardous. But now, especially in southern Colombia, it's utterly unthinkable.' -- Ralph Winter U.S. Center for World Mission in Pasadena, Calif.
Winter called the wider region -- including parts of Venezuela, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador -- "an astounding last frontier."
"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 attorney for New Tribes Mission of Sanford, Fla., whose 3,500 missionaries work with indigenous people to put churches in remote areas.
"We're a soft target if somebody wants to grab our people."
Wilbert R. Shenk, professor of missions history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said one factor in the rising tension is the changing geography of Latin American work.
While Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant expatriates worked largely in cities, energetic evangelical groups like New Tribes dispatched sizable numbers into the hinterlands where few foreigners had 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 conscious of security since 1993.
That year, guerrillas kidnapped staffers Dave Mankins, Mark Rich and Rick Tenenoff in Panama, took them into 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 no hard information.
The three are still missing. On Monday, New Tribes sent an official into Colombia in the latest attempt to get information. "The families really need closure on this," Ross said.
It is one of at least eight incidents since 1985 in which guerrillas or drug traffickers have killed or abducted U.S. Protestant missionaries in Latin America.
The New Tribes kidnappings increased caution for 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 page 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, who was gunned down in his Bogota, Colombia, neighborhood in 1993 in an apparent mugging.
Like New Tribes, Wycliffe Bible Translators of Orlando, Fla., works 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 conscious of Latin American security in recent years than before.
"We always try to be aware of what's around us and act wisely," he said.
On the Net:
Association of Baptists for World Evangelism: http://www.abwe.org
New Tribes Mission: http://www.ntm.org
Wycliffe Bible Translators: http://www.wycliffe.org
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