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.

Sunday, January 30, 2005

Evangelical Charity and Preaching Stirs Concern

Mix of Quake Aid and Preaching Stirs Concern
By David Rohde
January 22, 2005

MORAKETIYA, Sri Lanka, Jan. 19 -A dozen Americans walked into a relief camp here, showering bereft parents and traumatized children with gifts, attention and affection. They also quietly offered camp residents something else: Jesus.

The Americans, who all come from one church in Texas, have staged plays detailing the life of Jesus and had children draw pictures of him, camp residents said. They have told parents who lost children that they should still believe in God, and held group prayers where they tried to heal a partly paralyzed man and a deaf 12year-old girl.

The attempts at proselytizing are angering local Christian leaders, who worry that they could provoke a violent backlash against Christians in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country that is already a religious tinderbox.

Last year, Buddhist hard-liners attacked the offices of the World Vision Christian aid group and vandalized or threatened churches and pastors 75 times. They accuse Christians of using money and social programs to cajole and coerce conversions.

Most American groups, including those affiliated with religious organizations, strictly avoid mixing aid and missionary work. But scattered reports of proselytizing in Sri Lanka; Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim; and India, with large Hindu and Muslim populations, are arousing concerns that the good will spread by the American relief efforts may be undermined by resentment.

The Rev. Sarangika Fernando, a local Methodist minister, witnessed one of the prayer sessions in Sri Lanka and accused the Americans of acting unethically with traumatized people. "They said, 'In the name of Jesus, she must be cured!' " he said. "As a priest, I was really upset."

The Americans in Sri Lanka belong to the Antioch Community Church, an evangelical church based in Waco, Tex. Two members of the church were arrested, and accused of proselytizing, by the Taliban in Afghanistan in August 2001. When the United States invaded the country several months later, pro-American Northern Alliance forces freed the women, who church officials say did speak with Afghans about their personal "relationship with Jesus."

The Antioch Community Church is one of a growing number of evangelical groups that believe in mixing aidgiving with discussing religion, an approach that older, more established Christian aid groups like Catholic Relief Services call unethical.

In Sri Lanka, alarmed local Christian leaders say proselytizing at such a sensitive time could reverse the grass-roots interfaith cooperation that has emerged since the tsunami and endanger Christians, who make up 7 percent of the population. The country also has sizable Hindu and Muslim minorities.

The Rev. Duleep Fernando, a Methodist minister based in Colombo, the capital, brought the Americans to the camp here. Mr. Fernando said they had described themselves as humanitarian aid workers. He and other Sri Lankan Christian leaders say raising religion with traumatized refugees is unethical.

"We have told them this is not right, but now we don't have any control over them," said Mr. Fernando, who called the group's Web site postings "unnecessarily explosive."

"This is a dangerous situation," he said.

In Indonesia last week, reports that a missionary group named WorldHelp planned to raise 300 Muslim tsunami orphans in a Christian children's home in Jakarta brought an outcry from Muslims. The group later said it had never had custody of the children.

Sri Lankan refugees, camp administrators and church officials said the Americans here had identified themselves only as a humanitarian aid group. In an interview here on Wednesday, Pat Murphy, 49, a leader of the team, said the group was a nongovernmental organization, and not a church group. "It's an NGO," Mr. Murphy said. "Just your plain vanilla NGO that does aid work."

But the church's Web site says the Americans are one of four teams - for a total of 75 people - dispatched to Sri Lanka and Indonesia who have persuaded dozens of people to "come to Christ."

When the group's postings were read to Mr. Murphy, he confirmed that the Americans were from the Antioch Community Church, but said the group would never use relief goods and gifts to entice or pressure people into becoming Christians. He denied that the team, which sent about half its 24 members to work in the eastern town of Kalmunai, was trying to convert people. The church has 2,000 members.

"We simply provide people with information," he said, "and they do with that what they like."

A Jan. 18 posting from the team in Indonesia says the country's devastated Aceh Province is "ripe for Jesus!!"

"What an opportunity," it adds. "It has been closed for five years, and the missionaries in Indonesia consider it the most militant and difficult place for ministry. The door is wide open and the people are hungry."

The Rev. Jimmy Seibert, the senior pastor of the Waco church, said in a telephone interview that the church would evaluate whether the group's members should identify themselves as aid workers. But he said the church believes missionary work and aid work "is one thing, not two separate things."

"My hope is that as a follower of Jesus they would bring who they are into the workplace," he said, "whether they are in a workplace in America or a workplace in Sri Lanka."

Older Christian aid groups like Catholic Relief Services, Lutheran World Relief and others with religious affiliations say they do not proselytize, abiding by Red Cross guidelines that humanitarian aid not be used to further political or religious purposes. Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, said that in the last 20 years there had been an increase of smaller Christian evangelical groups providing relief aid in the wake of disaster.

"I think there are new groups that are driven by missionary zeal," Mr. Hackett said. In the last several weeks, Mr. Hackett said, his group has received anecdotal reports of proselytizing in countries devastated by the tsunami.

"From our partners in India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia we've heard that there have been instances when American and other Christian groups have been proselytizing and casting aspersions on the faith of people there," he said. "Some of these groups raise questions about other faiths, saying that people would be better off if they converted to Christianity immediately."

Several American evangelical aid groups have arrived in Sri Lanka, but no reports of proselytizing by those groups have emerged, according to Sri Lankan church officials. The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, visited Sri Lanka this week to encourage the workers of his evangelical aid organization, Samaritan's Purse, who plan to work in Sri Lanka for the next five years.

Other American evangelical aid groups, including Gospel for Asia and World Relief, are active on the country's devastated east coast, according to Sri Lankan and American aid workers.

Members of Mr. Graham's group said they did not engage in proselytizing, but said if local Christians wanted to build a church they would help them. Officials from World Relief, the aid wing of the National Association of Evangelicals, have said in interviews that they try to first build trust with local people and then look for opportunities for conversions, in some cases years later.

More evangelical groups are apparently on their way. A message posted on the Web site of the Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell says the school he founded, Liberty University, is preparing to send a team to Sri Lanka, India and other countries battered by the tsunami.

"Distribution of food and medical supplies along with the dissemination of thousands of Gospel tracts in the language of the people will keep the L.U. team very busy," the Web site says. "Mission trips to the Asian region by many L.U. students will follow in the months, and perhaps years, to come."

Ron Godwin, president of Jerry Falwell Ministries, confirmed that the Liberty Foundation was organizing a shipment of rice, medication and Scriptural excerpts, but said the primary goal of the effort was relief, not proselytizing. "Everything we do is in the name of Christ," he said. "But we try to be sensitive in areas where it may be politically sensitive, and we have no litmus test for those we give rice to."

According to the Waco church group's Web site, its teams in Sri Lanka and Indonesia are performing "children's ministry," seeing "many people saved" and continuing to "minister to families and children through prayer and evangelism."

According to its Web site, the congregation uses small groups called "cell churches" to attract new members. The reports from Indonesia and Sri Lanka refer to "cells" and "lifegroups" in both countries.

Residents of the camp here reported no healings as a result of the group's prayers. But they said they appreciated the aid and activities for children that the group provided and did not want to see them end.

Organizers in a nearby camp have declared the Americans missionaries and barred them from entering. Camp organizers here said they believed that the group was trying to convert people, but did not want to further upset the tsunami victims by cutting off the aid.

W. L. P. Wilson, 38, a disabled fisherman with a sixth-grade education, said he allowed the Americans to pray three times for the healing of his paralyzed lower leg because he was desperate to provide for his wife and three children again. Mr. Wilson, a Buddhist, said that he believed that the Americans were trying to convert him to Christianity but that he was in "a helpless situation now" and needed aid.

"They told me to always think about God and about Jesus andyou will be healed," he said. "Whenever I ask for help they always mention God, but they do not give any money for treatment."

Neela Banerjee contributed reporting from Washington for this article.


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