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"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Christian Relief Groups: Some organizations mix missionary work with aid

January 10, 2005, 2:10 am

By Janice D'Arcy
Sun Staff
Originally published January 8, 2005
The Baltimore Sun

Some evangelical groups are mixing Christian missionary work with humanitarian aid in countries ravaged by the tsunamis and earthquake, a provocative approach shunned by the majority of faith-based relief organizations.

Spreading faith this way can antagonize the people they're trying to help, and there's evidence of concern among Muslims, Hindus and others. But evangelical leaders say they define humanitarian aid as having a spiritual component.

Aid should "share the love of Christ," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and the outspoken leader of Samaritan's Purse, which is shipping shelter materials and other emergency donations to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Of the victims and their families, he said Wednesday in an interview, "I would hope that they would come to know the God I know."

The notion of sharing "the love of Christ" can take many forms: adoptions of orphaned children, religious pamphlets tucked into relief kits. Sometimes it's establishing relationships in the hope of future influence. "They will not give up the goal of church planting," said Scott Moreau, editor of Evangelical Missions Quarterly and a Wheaton College professor.

Baltimore-based World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, is focused on humanitarian aid while looking for opportunities to later encourage conversions in southern Asia.

World Relief spokesman Chris Pettit cited as a model the group's work helping war-ravaged Cambodians in the early 1990s. Long after the crisis, World Relief workers revived their relationships with residents and encouraged them to build churches. Pettit said there are now 300 churches in the Cambodian areas where they worked.

"Historically, the best approach is to provide help and build trust, and then through that trust, opportunities arise. We plant the seeds," he said.

That philosophy is at odds with the faith-based relief agencies that deliver aid for aid's sake, such as the Christian relief agency World Vision and Catholic Relief Services. "They consider the very fact that they're there and compassionate as a viable form of Christian witness without having to convert people," Moreau said.

Centuries-old debate

The debate is centuries old, said Richard Wood, a former Yale Divinity School dean who now leads the United Board for Christian Higher Education in Asia.

Going back to at least the 16th century when the Jesuits and Franciscans fought over their approach to working in China, Wood said, religious groups have argued about how to deliver humanitarian aid. One side supports deference to indigenous religions and cultures; the other seeks an opportunity to spread its religious message.

Today, the majority of faith-based relief groups embrace the cultural deference model. By all accounts, the same is true for those groups working now in southern Asia.

InterAction, an umbrella organization that coordinates the largest relief agencies, including the most widely recognized faith-based groups, does not explicitly prohibit proselytizing. But it does expect its members to respect the "cultural, religious and political customs" in the countries where they work.

Number unknown

Quantifying the number of evangelical relief workers in the region is difficult, given that few belong to larger coordinating groups and that missionary groups may include large numbers of local residents. But there is evidence that they have a significant presence there.

Moreau, who edited the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions, said that before the tsunami, India was host to more than 100 missionary agencies, Indonesia at least 70 and Sri Lanka at least 25.

When disaster struck, the dozens of staff and thousands of indigenous members affiliated with these agencies were in the region and ready to deliver aid.

Texas-based Gospel for Asia, for instance, reported that many of its members in India immediately converged on disaster areas. Gospel for Asia's president, K.P. Yohannan, pledged in a letter to members that workers are "rushing much-needed aid and the love of God to millions of Asians."

Graham, for his part, is departing for the region next week to witness his group's work. He is blunt about the importance of his group's work and the work of Christians in general. "If we are going to depend on Muslims to go in and help Muslims, well, they aren't coming," Graham said.

Emotional reaction

The reaction of some non-Christians in and from the region is visceral.

An anonymous electronic text message spread through Indonesia this week captured a glimmer of the anxieties. "Please ask among friends who would like to adopt orphans from Aceh. 300 orphans coming soon. Need Muslim homes. Christian missionaries want them. Pls help!" it read.

That message caused such an uproar that the government pledged to try to reunite the Aceh province's orphaned children with family members, the Indonesian Embassy said yesterday.

At the same time, groups such as Indians Against Christian Aggression are sending out a steady stream of stories that tell of overzealous missionaries exploiting vulnerable non-Christians. Headlines on the group's Web site yesterday included "Christian Missionaries Seek Converts Amidst Tsunami Victims" and "Evangelist Comes Looking For Orphans in a 747 Boeing."

Though the stories tend to exaggerate or sensationalize, they are finding an audience.

On one message group for Southeast Asians this week, a Minnesota Hindu proposed a protest of a benefit that would send proceeds to a Christian group - even though the group, World Vision, does not proselytize.

That is precisely what relief workers fear most.

'Not good on both sides'

"It's not good on both sides," said Rizwan Mowlana, a Gaithersburg Muslim who said he lost 42 members of his family when the tsunami flooded Sri Lanka.

Mowlana works with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and has also established his own nondenominational relief agency in the tsunami aftermath. He calls the proselytizing groups "predatory," but he said it may be best to ignore them.

"It's not something we should talk about because people may get scared and stop donating."

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