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Issue Date:  April 18, 2003

Mixing aid with proselytism provokes debate among relief groups

Religion News Service

Will proselytizing in Iraq offer comfort and hope to a nation that is 97 percent Muslim?

Or will it reinforce the growing perception of Muslims worldwide that the war, no matter what President Bush says, is against Islam, not Saddam Hussein?

The largest American Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, recently announced plans to send relief workers into Iraq to address both physical and spiritual needs. Samaritan’s Purse, a relief organization headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, has similar plans, as do other evangelical relief organizations.

Criticism was both swift and harsh.

Other faith-based relief groups said that proselytizing would tarnish their own humanitarian efforts in Muslim countries.

Several critics said that private relief groups are considered extensions of their governments in the Islamic world. Consequently, said Dan O’Neil, co-founder of Mercy Corps, based in Portland, Ore., “we have to pay the price of groups that don’t play by the generally accepted rules of humanitarian engagement.”

Some relief groups make proselytizing a firing offense.

Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which has been in Iraq since the end of the first Gulf War, does not proselytize. Neither does the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which focuses on helping Jews in need.

“We try to open our hearts to others and see the full dimension of God in their experience,” said Tom Getman, the Geneva-based director of humanitarian affairs and international relations for World Vision, a Christian group. “So we have a firm policy that we must never use a gift to persuade people to believe as we believe.”

At its root, the proselytism issue is over religious values and interpretation of biblical passages.

Evangelicals stress evangelism, as their name implies. They believe they have a duty to share the “good news” of the gospel, that Jesus came to save sinners so they can go to heaven and escape hell.

They cite Jesus’ last words to his followers, urging them to go forth and “make disciples of all nations.” This charge, which has animated missionaries for centuries, is often referred to as the “Great Commission.”

All the groups say they are taking no government money for their efforts and they will be sensitive, even subtle, in their approach. Receptivity to a religious message will never be a requirement to receive food, water, shelter or any other aid, they say.

The image of Bible-toting missionaries marching into Iraq as Christian soldiers is inaccurate, they argue, because for the most part, the gospel will be shared only in private, in response to queries from curious individuals.

How Muslims perceive evangelicals is important, especially since Bush himself is an evangelical Christian with strong ties to Graham, who said a prayer at his inauguration, and to Southern Baptists, who have been loyal supporters, said Ingrid Mattson, assistant professor of Islamic studies at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

But Ellen Yount, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Agency for International Development, which helps coordinate and fund relief efforts, said given that the groups are “private charitable organizations and activities, we don’t have any legal jurisdiction over them.”

In other words, unless government money is involved, faith-based relief groups are free to proselytize, or not to proselytize, as they wish.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2003

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