More than 500 friends, family members, and ministers gathered at Greater Rhode Island Baptist Temple on Feb. 24 to honor John Kelley, the Baptist pastor who was shot and killed 10 days earlier in Iraq. Mr. Kelley was riding with three fellow American pastors south of Baghdad when the taxi they had hired came under fire. Garland Carey and David Davis were injured, while Kirk DiVietro and the driver were unharmed. The three surviving pastors, along with others who were part of the group traveling in Iraq since Feb. 6, all attended the memorial service.
"He died in the service of our Lord," said Roland Vukic, a member of the Curtis Corner Baptist Church in South Kingstown, R.I., where Mr. Kelley, 49, was a pastor for 18 years. Mr. Kelley leaves behind a wife, Jane, and four children.
Attacks on U.S. interests in Iraq have dropped steadily since the capture of Saddam Hussein-from about 50 per day last November to around 15 a day this month. During the week of Mr. Kelley's death, U.S. forces reported 17 engagements a day from insurgents. The day following the attack on the pastors, according to Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, coalition forces conducted 1,462 patrols, 23 offensive operations, 11 raids, and captured 68 anti-coalition suspects.
Improving statistics are one reason Iraq is seeing more American civilian workers, including contractors for reconstruction projects as well as do-gooders, both secular and religious. But clearly Americans in Iraq are not yet out of danger.
Friends of Mr. Kelley said he and his family were fully aware of the risk from insurgents and suicide bombers before he left for Iraq. "He was there because he wanted to see Scripture take a foothold," said Mr. DiVietro, who was in the car with Mr. Kelley when it was attacked.
The trip was the second to Iraq since the war for Mr. Kelley, a former Marine. He and other pastors, with support from Independent Baptist congregations in the Northeast, traveled to Baghdad to assist Iraqi Baptist pastor Ronnie George in starting a new church and to scout opportunities for opening other churches. They were returning to Baghdad from the south when a white sedan the pastors had seen following them sped alongside their taxi and opened fire, spraying the vehicle with bullets while the gunmen shouted Islamic oaths.
The injured pastors were treated at an Iraqi hospital before Army personnel learned of the incident. When they did, American medics were sent to retrieve them and brought them to Baghdad, where they were cared for at a combat support hospital. Army officials also arranged to fly the pastors out together to Jordan, along with transporting the body of Mr. Kelley.
"We are not in uniform, we aren't the guys putting their lives on the line every day. But we lost one of the soldiers in our platoon and it hurts," said Mark Davis, a Middle East scholar and former Rhode Island pastor who now leads Victory Baptist Church in Berrysburg, Pa. "It affects a lot of people, starting out with his own wife and children who depend on him."
Mr. Davis said the loss of Mr. Kelley has had a "stunning" effect on Rhode Island's tight-knit Independent Baptist community, but has galvanized interest and support for redoubling the work of the church in Iraq.