The Conversion Agenda

"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.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Counting Sheep?

The proselytising zeal of American missionaries knows no slack even in tsunami aid


Are American Christian evangelists using the devastation wreaked by the tsunami to spread the word of God—their God? Disturbing stories from the region and fund-raising appeals from religious leaders in the US who want to "plant Christian principles as early as possible" in the orphans of Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India have raised profound questions about proselytisation of vulnerable people in times of tragedy. Some groups send help along with Bibles—in Bhojpuri—to increase the fold in affected countries, making it harder for others to provide relief. By lacing help with questions of faith, however delicately, evangelical groups can deepen religious faultlines at a time when talk of civilisational wars rages in e-chat rooms.

The controversy surfaced earlier this month when Vernon Brewer, president of the Virginia-based missionary group World Help, told journalists he wanted to airlift 300 'tsunami orphans' from Banda Aceh to raise them in a Christian children's home. He quickly
retracted when the Indonesian government banned adoptions by non-Muslim groups. From India surfaced a story about Samanthapettai, a fishing village in Tamil Nadu hit by the tsunami, where some Christian missionaries reportedly refused to distribute biscuits and water unless the Hindu recipients agreed to change their faith. When TV reporters approached the nuns, they refused to comment and left.

Local missionaries in India and other non-Christian countries are funded to a large extent by resource-rich American groups—powerful multi-million dollar corporations complete with TV channels and private planes. The websites, updated with fervent appeals for funds and tearful photos of tsunami survivors, are a window to their incredible organisation and explicit agendas for touching the "unreached people" or non-Christians with the hand of God. They look at India and Indonesia as "opportunities" for spreading the gospel. India is often described as a land of darkness, of idol worshippers and an area ripe for redemption.

World Help has printed 1,00,000 Bibles in Bhojpuri, a language it glibly assumes was hidden from evangelists. "Imagine a group of 90 million people who have never been able to read God's Word in their own language until just recently. What an incredible opportunity God is giving us to provide Bibles for the Bhojpuri for the very first time!" declares its mission statement. (Not quite an accurate claim: Bible work in Bhojpuri is nearly a century old in India, even older if you count work targeted at the diaspora.) Yet, the statement goes on: "Our strategy for the next seven years is to plant 1,00,000 organised churches and 1 million house churches in the least-reached area of the world...specifically in the North India(n) state of Uttar Pradesh." This January, World Help is sending a mission to India "where God is overcoming hundreds of years of false religions and idol worship. In...Allahabad alone, 40,000 new believers now meet weekly to worship the one true God."

Another group, Samaritan's Purse, has also energised around the tsunami tragedy. Headed by Franklin Graham, son of presidential godman Billy Graham, this North Carolina-based group's helicopter is helping ferry victims from inaccessible areas. Graham, who appears on his website in a leather jacket more suited to Mick Jagger, called Islam an "evil and wicked" religion after the 9/11 attacks. While organising relief for the tsunami victims, Graham told The Baltimore Sun, "If we are going to depend on Muslims to go in and help Muslims, well, they aren't coming." He publicly hoped the victims and their kin "would come to know the God I know", which to some was an admission of the larger purpose. He has left for Indonesia with a planeload of relief supplies.

Graham sees India as a "vast subcontinent" where Samaritan's Purse projects are "helping bring the gospel to thousands living in spiritual darkness".

However, Don Norrington, a spokesman for Graham, told Outlook that proselytisation, which he called an "inflammatory word", was not the group's policy. Currently, it is working in partnership with local Indian affiliates to rebuild a fishing village. The strategy allows US groups to maintain a safe distance from "conversions" while local groups do the work. But the 2003 annual report of Samaritan's Purse announces that in India it "completed 10 church buildings, with another four under construction, and provided support for pastors, Bible schools, Christian schools and a daycare centre".

Mission statements are generally explicit about their goals. Samaritan's Purse says it "serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ". The World Help website, which opens with a heart-wrenching photo of a crying Indian woman, lists its mission
as "effective evangelism, discipleship, church planting, humanitarian aid, child sponsorship, leadership training and literature distribution". A specific appeal, scrubbed clean last week from the site, sought help to place Indonesian orphans so "their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people".

"This kind of proselytisation demeans the idea of religious conversion, for it uses helplessness to spread a religion," says Ashutosh Varshney, political science professor at Michigan University. "A genuine change in conviction remains the best basis for religious conversion and should not be stopped. Few people in abysmal distress can exercise sound judgement."

John Hare, a professor at the Yale University's school of divinity, says in general Christian groups regard providing relief as part of Christian service. "They don't make a distinction between relief and spreading the gospel. But if they're using aid as leverage in acceptance of the gospel, it is inconsistent with what Christians believe," he said. Sid Balman, a spokesman for InterAction, a coalition of 160 US relief organisations which raised nearly $200 million for tsunami aid, said its charter doesn't prohibit proselytisation but does ask members to respect local norms and abide by laws. Asked how they monitored member groups, Balman said the "only way it would work is if someone complained", an unlikely prospect unless another organised religion gets into the act. At least 30 per cent of the groups in InterAction are faith-based, some Jewish and Muslim.

When religious passions are high, it's important to analyse the role of all religious fundamentalists. While Muslim extremists are commonly denounced in the US media, Christian hardliners are rarely challenged. Leading evangelists routinely smear other religions, specially Islam, on mainstream networks and still receive grants from President George Bush. Jerry Falwell, founder of Moral Majority, called Prophet Mohammad "a terrorist" on CBS on October 6, 2002. The insult sparked a riot all the way out in Solapur, India, killing eight people and injuring 90 others.

At a time when America is increasingly viewed as waging a war against the Muslim world, hateful speech and charity with an ambiguous agenda from zealous Christians can only add to the tension.


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