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.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Warning to Christians on a Mission to Save Souls

January 24, 2005, 12:22 pm

By Sebastien Berger
January 23, 2005
The Sun-Herald

For the devout Muslims of Aceh the disaster that has befallen them is a warning from Allah. For some Christians it is a God-given opportunity to convert the heathen.

Mainstream aid groups, even the openly Christian ones, make clear that they have no proselytising mission. Any evangelism is likely to lead to expulsion by the Indonesian authorities, already nervous at the influx of foreigners following the tsunami.

Nevertheless, some foreigners are prepared to run the risk of being caught trying to convert Muslims. "I'm not here to do relief work," said John, a Malaysian Chinese lawyer who did not want his surname published. His calling was missionary work, he said. "They are looking for answers," he said of the disaster victims, whom he described as particularly good candidates for conversion. "Now we are befriending them, giving them food aid, clothes and stuff. We need to make friends with them first rather than telling them the concept of salvation.

"Long-term that's where we are heading towards, to save their souls."

About 300 aid workers, almost half of them foreigners, from various Christian groups have taken over a Banda Aceh hotel in an operation led by Indonesia's National Prayer Network.

Pastor Sukendra Saragih, 44, of the Church of the Tabernacle of David in Medan and the operation's co-ordinator, was aware of local sensitivities about conversion. He sent home 10 people who described evangelism as their motive for coming.

"We are not coming here to Christianise the people but to share our life with them," he insisted. "We don't tell them directly about Jesus but we show our love through our actions and the people will ask us, 'Why are you so different, why are you being so kind to us?'

"I answer, 'That's the way we have been taught'. They ask, 'Who taught you?'. And I answer, 'It's Jesus'."

Such attitudes are especially unwelcome in a region where signs outside the airport inform visitors that they are entering territory governed by Islamic sharia law.

On Friday, near scenes of devastation, thousands filled Banda Aceh's Masjid (mosque) Raya Baiturrahman and its grounds for the festival of Eid al-Adha. Prayers were followed by sacrifices of cattle and sheep.

One slaughterer found comfort in his faith: "Actually I am one of the victims," said Daud Hanafia. "From my family 22 people are gone and 18 survive. It is the will of Allah. We are very sad but I am still patient."

One of the mosque's imams warned Christian aid groups not to cross the line between charity and proselytising. "If they give help but at the end of the help they have a special mission to make the Aceh people become Christian, then forget it. We won't take the help at all," he said.

"If there is preaching then we will be very angry with them. We have our own religion, we believe it. You have your own religion, so believe it. Don't try to persuade others."

Several radical Islamic groups have also arrived in Aceh, partly to carry out relief work and partly to spread their own message.

"We watch foreign volunteers' activities," said Muhammad Rizieq Shihab, the leader of the Front Pembela Islam (Islamic Defenders' Front), which would like a global Islamic state and says it has 5 million members.

"I have received many local guests and they tell me that if they get Christians taking Acehnese children and asking them to change religion, they will cut their throats," he said.


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