Alleged murder of four Bible translators raises many questions

De moord op vier Bijbelvertalers door moslimmilitanten in het Midden-Oosten is met vragen omgeven. Alleen in ‘donker Afrika’ kan bijvoorbeeld een roofoverval langer onder de radar blijven, oppert Bram van Grootheest. Geloof
De moord op vier Bijbelvertalers door moslimmilitanten in het Midden-Oosten is met vragen omgeven. Alleen in ‘donker Afrika’ kan bijvoorbeeld een roofoverval langer onder de radar blijven, oppert Bram van Grootheest. | beeld ap / Hassan Ammar

Islamic militants in the Middle East have killed four Bible translators, according to the American charity Wycliffe Associates last month. Since then, experts have voiced severe doubts – no one knows where that should have happened.

Lees hier in het Nederlands: Vermeende moord op 4 Wycliffe-bijbelvertalers roept veel vragen op


It is March 17th when Mae Greenleaf, a volunteer and prayer coordinator with Wycliffe Associates in the United States, has some very sad news. Somewhere in the Middle East four local Bible translators have been killed by Islamic militants. Two of them were shot, two others were bludgeoned to death. The head of translation survived the attack; their computer hard drive containing translation work for eight language projects could be salvaged. The work will be set forth at a different location with united forces. “And as you pray, you may be led to give to our Emergency 911 Fund. Please take this opportunity to be an encourager to translation teams in dangerous places.’’ Those who follow the weblink can donate immediately; for their convenience a form has been pre-set for a one-time gift of 25 dollars.

A few days later the prayer letter leaks through to the media. On Monday March 21st, the beginning of Holy Week, several American and Dutch websites and newspapers media carry stories about it. These are confirmed by the Associates’ Managing Director, Bruce Smith, who is however reluctant to give more details. He talks of Christian martyrs who died for their beliefs. They remain anonymous martyrs, without names or faces. For security reasons the charity won’t go into exactly where the incident has occurred either. The survivors need to be protected and the projects continued. The strategy is similar to those used by other Christian organisations that work in closed countries, mostly in the Islamic world.

But in this case serious questions remain. Later that same week, the international Wycliffe Global Alliance puts a declaration on its website. The head office in Singapore has received a lot of telephone calls, but they have no knowledge of the incident. Earlier that month, of all times, Wycliffe Associates left the alliance – although it retained the name, the ties with the worldwide Wycliffe family were severed.

The alliance stipulates that none of its staff were killed or injured, nor any employees of national or local partner organisations. More than that, it says: “We have no other information on this incident, where it took place or who were involved.’’

That last sentence is remarkable. Even when information from “closed regions” will only be shared confidentially, almost invariably other organisations and experts will know about it. If four Christians are assassinated, it will not go unnoticed, not even in the Middle East. But in this case, no one knows anything.

no evidence

The head of Wycliffe Netherlands, Bram van Grootheest, confirmed this once again last week: yes, the murder of Bible translators is the talk of the town, but “there is no evidence from other sources. We are unable to confirm the story from Wycliffe Associates’’. This view is confirmed by other groups that work in the Middle East, among them Open Doors, the charity that supports persecuted Christians – yes, we have seen the news, but we have had no reports out of our own network.

On further questioning we came across some serious doubts: this story is very unlikely to have taken place.

The human rights organisation Middle East Concern, which campaigns for Christian communities in the Middle East and North Africa, is going one step further. It has a very large network and has launched an investigation of its own into the assassinations. Says managing director Daniel Hoffman, a Dutchman who leads the organisation from Luton, England and is considered an authority, curtly: “I am pretty sure that this incident did not take place in the Middle East or North Africa.’’ There is no other source he knows of, publicly nor confidentially.

Meanwhile, Wycliffe Associates hits the headlines on a weekly basis with fresh plans and a determination to “re-double its efforts’’. Again and again the “tragic murders’’ are invoked; only last week the charity announced special training projects for Bible translators in high-risk regions. The week before, the affected translation team had doubled its efforts to reach its goal anyway. To safeguard this work 50.000 dollar is needed, it is said. Director Bruce Smith mentions the blood of martyrs as being the seed of the Church.

When questioned further about the nature of the tragedy it made public, Wycliffe Associates is reticent. Spokesman Donn Hallman does not answer his phone; later on he sends an e-mail saying he will not enter into questions, in order to protect the remaining team members. When put under some pressure, he sends a second e-mail: the charity does not wish to elaborate on things about which no press release has been issued. In this case the incident has only been mentioned “in a prayer request to our grassroots’’, as Hallman puts it.  

That is a strange argument. Wycliffe Associates has made a lot of headlines and what is more, it freely uses the tragic news as a basis for its fundraising. Confronted by this, director Smith himself sends a reply, again by e-mail. He is not surprised that the international Wycliffe Associates doesn’t know about the incident, he writes. The fact that these Bible translators were working there had only become known at this very local level, which led to the attack. This means the work can only continue if no more information is shared. Later on Smith adds that this strategy has been decided in consultation with the local Church which is involved with the translation project. “It determines how and what we communicate.’’


Plausible as this may seem to an outsider, Hoffman and Van Grootheest are not convinced. They come up with different scenarios. Hoffman: “It could be that the incident happened in Pakistan or Afghanistan. In the US those two are sometimes counted as Middle East countries too. About those countries there is nothing I can say with any certainty.’’

Smith does admit that he has used the term Middle East “not in its most limited sense”. But even then, extensive investigation yields no results. No incident has been reported from either country, nor is it likely, for different reasons. In Pakistan Christians will seize on every incident to highlight their perilous plight. In Afghanistan there are no major translation projects.

Van Grootheest suggests that only in “darkest Africa”, where there is hardly any infrastructure, something like an armed robbery could stay under the radar for a longer time. Hoffman considers as a realistic option that the story doesn’t add up, “for example when people in the workfield spread some news that is not true, or not completely true. It has happened before that an international organisation has been misled by local people, for example for financial gain’’.

Speaking of which – why is Wycliffe Associates raising funds in response to the tragedy? Smith finds that only logical. “Our supporters want to give when things go well and when things go wrong.’’ Van Grootheest: “Wycliffe Netherlands would not use such an incident for fundraising or PR. I find the American campaign overstepping the mark.’’

Finally: how certain is Smith about the murders? He writes that he is “as certain as can be without having been present when it occurred’’. He has spoken to a witness who confirmed the injuries of one of the survivors. And no, it has not been possible for a delegation to take a flight there to offer help and support - precisely because the region is so unsafe.

Smith writes that he has often been deceived in Haiti, where he used to work for the missionary aviation charity MAF. He refers to the story about the Good Samaritan in the Bible. “The parable of the Good Samaritan doesn’t teach us to guarantee that the desperate man did not fake his injuries or create his own problems. It just says - be a neighbor, do likewise. I’m confident enough in the current situation to prioritize it in my personal stewardship and invite others in my family to do the same. I refuse to walk past on the other side of the road.” 

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