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.

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Critics say some Christians spread aid and Gospel

By Kim Barker
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published January 22, 2005

AKKARAIPETTAI, India -- The Christian evangelists came in the morning, wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts emblazoned with "Believers Church" on the back and "Gospel for Asia" on the front. They loaded up hundreds of villagers, mostly Hindus, in vans and trucks and drove them 6 miles away.

There, away from the eyes of village officials, each tsunami survivor received relief supplies--a sleeping mat, a plate, a sari, a 55-pound bag of rice and, in the bottom of a white plastic bag proclaiming "Believers Church Tsunami Relief," a book containing biblical verses warning against the dangers of alcohol.

"What do I do?" asked Muthammal, 35, who uses one name like many in southern India and wears the red bindi on her forehead showing she's Hindu. Like many here, she cannot read. "They are asking us to come all this way. It is so difficult."

Members of the Believers Church also have handed out Bibles to tsunami survivors on the streets and in relief camps. They set up an orphanage for 108 children, including many Hindus, and asked the children to recite Christian prayers six times a day. The Protestant church did not register the orphanage with the government, authorities said. K.P. Yohannan, the leader of Believers Church and Gospel for Asia, said the church had tried to get government permission.

Since the Dec. 26 tsunami killed more than 157,000 people and left millions homeless, relief groups have flooded into Asia, from Sri Lanka to Thailand. As in any crisis, many aid groups are religious, and they consider it their duty to minister to the needy. Most shun proselytizing and make little reference to what they believe.

But in parts of Asia, some religious groups have sparked controversy. They are accused of spreading a message as they hand out rice and other supplies. They are accused of exploiting tsunami victims.

In Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country, Christian groups have been criticized for distributing Bibles in relief camps. A U.S. missionary group, World Help, planned to help raise 300 Muslim children in a Christian children's home in Jakarta, the capital. The project was abandoned after the government protested.

An Islamic militant group in the hard-hit Indonesian province of Aceh recruited members as it collected bodies; other Islamic groups handed out thousands of Korans in relief camps.

A U.S. group, the International Bible Society, has announced plans to send 100,000 Christian texts, including a book translated into Thai, "When Your Whole World Changes," to survivors, including those in Thailand.

Another group, Focus on the Family, prepared 300,000 survival packets including food, water, medicine and the evangelical text "When God Doesn't Make Sense." The group also has announced plans to rebuild destroyed villages in India's Andhra Pradesh as "Christian communities."

Gospel for Asia, a Texas-based evangelical group with native missionaries in 10 Asian countries and the phone number 1-800-WIN-ASIA, has dispatched about 1,000 workers to hand out relief aid. A feature on the group's Web site called "Tsunami prayer requests" asks people to pray for, among other things, many opportunities to share the Gospel and "pray that the Lord will bless this amazing opportunity to touch thousands of children's lives with the Gospel."

Conversion efforts denied

Yohannan said members of the Believers Church and Gospel for Asia were not trying to convert anyone. But if people embraced Christianity after meeting the evangelists, Yohannan would be happy.

"We wish everyone would believe in Jesus and love Jesus," he said.

In India, fewer people have protested religious relief activities than in Indonesia. Strife among religions is common in India, but such differences have been largely set aside since the disaster. Most Indians are Hindu, but the tsunami hit hardest in an area near holy spots for Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. People also are happy to get anything. They will take Christian texts from Believers Church if it means getting rice.

"They are giving it," said Govindaraj, 45, a Hindu from Akkaraipettai. "So we are taking it."

The surrounding Nagapattinam area of Tamil Nadu, a coastal fishing district where more than 6,000 people died, now looks like an ad for multiculturalism. Nuns in habits ride around in a white Jeep. Refugees store clothing in cardboard boxes taped with signs from "Eternal Word Ministries Relief Aid." Muslims in T-shirts advertising their religion help pull out trawlers that the tsunami slammed into a bridge.

Scientologists try to heal people and help them move on from the tsunami. The children of the village call them "the white people in the yellow dresses," although they are not all white and they wear yellow T-shirts--different from those of the Believers Church--proclaiming "volunteer minister."

Most of these groups have had no problems. Many religious leaders say they are only helping people, not spreading religion.

"This is not the time to distribute Bibles or preach," said Rev. Franklin of the Church of South India, a Protestant church.

Men from the Tamil Nadu Muslim Progress Organization shook the hands of Scientologists, who had trained them in a procedure called a "contact assist," which tries to get people to move on from the time of the tsunami and face their fears.

The Believers Church has stirred up more controversy than any action by the Scientologists. Several church members denied handing out Bibles and insisted they were only cleaning up homes.

"We have not handed out Bibles," said Anandraj, 25.

Later, outside their new orphanage, church members acknowledged they had handed out Bibles and booklets against alcohol and abortion that include biblical verses. They said they had distributed relief materials at the orphanage, rather than in the village, because it was easier and because they did not have enough for everyone. They denied trying to convert anyone. They said they only wanted to help.

Local officials displeased

But Akkaraipettai officials were upset. They complained that the Christian group did not follow the village procedures for relief agencies and did not help everyone.

"We will not accept anyone trying to convert anyone to another religion," said Selvamnattar, the village president, adding that the village was entirely Hindu. "Anyone who wants to help, we welcome it. But we will not allow conversions."

The state of Tamil Nadu once banned religious conversions, but that law recently was repealed. Yohannan, the leader of Believers Church and Gospel for Asia, blamed any controversy on Hindu fundamentalists trying to stir up trouble.

Many children from Akkaraipettai ended up at the Believers Church orphanage, set up to care for children who lost one or both parents or for children whose parents could not handle their children after the tsunami. Biju, a Believers Church official, said church members recruited children by talking about the orphanage to people in relief camps and villages.

"We did not take the children," he said.

But the orphanage was set up without knowledge of the government, said Suriyakala, the district's social welfare officer.

Inside the orphanage, children seemed happy, playing volleyball, badminton and cricket. Several Hindu children said they were asked to recite Christian prayers six times a day.

"As soon as we get up, we pray," said Rajavalli, 13, a Hindu, adding that she had no problem with praying.

Members of the church also handed out Tamil-language Bibles, including refugees staying in a railway station. Several said they took the Bible only because it was offered.

But Mahalakshmi, 18, who had converted earlier from Hinduism to Christianity, said she was happy to get a Bible.

"I understand that to make people understand they have sinned, God has sent this tsunami," she said. "I get peace from reading the Bible and understanding this. Others who don't will continue to suffer."

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