WASHINGTON -- They believe that God sent them to Baghdad. They believe the Divine Spirit sent them to support Iraq's tiny Christian community and perhaps even to spread the Gospels to the country's Muslim population. Since the war ended in Iraq last spring, American missionaries have traveled into one of the world's most dangerous places, eager to open the first church of their denomination and to see ancient landmarks that are mentioned in the Old Testament.
But last weekend, their presence in Iraq was tragically highlighted when gunmen sprayed a taxi full of Baptist pastors who were on their way back from a sightseeing trip to Babylon. The "execution-style" slaying claimed the Rev. John Kelley of Wakefield, R.I., and wounded two others -- the Rev. Kirk DiVietro of Franklin, Mass., and the Rev. David Davis of Vernon, Conn.
The group, a loose delegation led by Pastor Robert Lewis of Cumberland, R.I., was helping an Iraqi pastor open what they believed would be the first Baptist church in the country. The death of one of their seven members hasn't shaken their resolve. "The door is open right now. You can't wait until it's safe over there. You've got to go when there is opportunity," said Erik Vukic, a 35-year-old construction worker who was serving as a spokesman for Kelley's church, First Baptist Church of Warwick, R.I.
"Every day people die in their sins. The only escape from the Lake of Fire is to put their faith in the Savior, who is Jesus Christ."
The role religion will play in the new Iraq has been a central controversy as the country moves toward self-governance.
Against this backdrop, American missionaries have traveled to Iraq to support the emergence of new churches among Iraq's indigenous Christians, who make up 750,000 of the country's estimated 25 million people.
The Bush administration has been close to some missionary groups, some of whom make up a core constituency of supporters. Samaritan's Purse, a group that sent medicine to Iraq shortly after the war, is run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, the Rev. Billy Graham's son, who led the prayer at President Bush's inauguration. World Vision, a Christian humanitarian group, is funded by the United States Agency for International Development to work in Iraq.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the administration discourages travel to Iraq by private citizens and does not encourage missionary work.
"We have a very strong travel warning that tells people not to go to Iraq, that it still remains a dangerous place," he said. Travel has been discouraged for "any Americans except for those that might be engaged in official duties or in support of the effort that's underway now," he added.
It is difficult to calculate how many missionaries are traveling to Iraq. Ruby Burke, director of membership services at Baptist World Alliance, a coalition of about 200 Baptist unions, said she is not aware of any official missionary groups sent by the large conventions.
Most missionaries sent into dangerous countries receive extensive training for the positions and are supported by the churches. But small church groups in the loosely connected Baptist network are sending people on their own, Burke said.
"A lot of times people will just go on their own, in some other guise, perhaps even as a business person or something like that," she said. "None of this is official."
Yet missionaries continue to travel there, often with little experience in the region and paying their own way.
Kelley, a former US Marine, took Arabic lessons to prepare for the trip with the seven-pastor group. He was a personal friend of Lewis, a retired pastor of Blackstone Valley Baptist Church in Rhode Island and a founder of Global Resource Group, a small nonprofit organization that supports missions worldwide.
In an e-mail from Baghdad to a church member, Lewis described the shooting as "an execution-style attack."
"Their van was sprayed with automatic weapon fire. The attack came from a small passenger car that was behind the van. The car passed the van on the right side and repeatedly sprayed the vehicle with bullets," he wrote. "This was a tragic loss. Pastor Kelley has been a close associate of mine for many years. We have worked on a number of projects together in the work of the Lord.
"He was [a] volunteer for this team, as were the other members. He requested permission to come, and he has certainly been a blessing to all with whom he has had contact. My grief is without description."
Sam Stricklin, a pastor at First Baptist Church in Warwick, who traveled to Iraq last month, said Kelley's group appeared to be taking too many risks. Stricklin said that during his trip to Iraq, he surrounded himself with Arabic-speaking friends, rarely went out in public, and was advised never to leave Baghdad.
"My understanding is that this group was way too much on their own and did not know what they were getting into and should never have been allowed to leave Baghdad," Stricklin said.
"They were going to a different neighborhood, which I understand was a Muslim neighborhood . . . I understand that they did not get good advice."
Stricklin, who said he believed the church he was helping to set up would be the first Baptist church in Baghdad, said the only permission he needed to travel there was a valid passport and a visa.
"It's under the control of the US government," Stricklin said. "You can start a church. You don't need the government's approval to do anything."
Kate Pettit, whose father, the Rev. DiVietro, was wounded in the attack, said the group was on its way back from a sightseeing excursion to Babylon when it was hit.
The pastors were helping an Iraqi Christian set up a church and were not preaching to Muslims.
"They think it was just a random shooting. They were an SUV full of Americans," she said. "What they were doing was not anything that they would be attacked for."
Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Stockman reported from Washington and Allen from Rhode Island.