2 Christian Groups’ Aid Effort Questioned

Washington Post: Two major evangelical Christian groups said yesterday that they have amassed supplies in Jordan and are preparing to send relief workers into Iraq as soon as the military situation permits.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, and Samaritan’s Purse, run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, said they are ready to provide emergency shelter, food aid and medical care to Iraq’s mostly Muslim population. The announcements raised concerns among U.S. Muslim leaders that the groups intend to proselytize in Iraq.

Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, has called Islam an “evil” and “wicked” religion that foments violence.

“I think it’s a colossally bad move to have a group whose leader says Islam is ‘evil’ follow in the wake of U.S. troops in Iraq,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim advocacy group in Washington. “It would seem to confirm every suspicion in the Muslim world that the war on Iraq and the war on terrorism are really a war on Islam.”

Several other Christian groups, including Church World Service and Action by Churches Together, have been providing humanitarian relief in Iraq for years. But they are ecumenical umbrella groups that eschew proselytizing. “We do not in any way see our humanitarian assistance as a means of evangelism,” said Rick Augsburger, director of the emergency response program at Church World Service in New York.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief also announced this week that it is raising funds for relief in Iraq, but its chief executive officer, Paul Dirdak, said it will funnel its aid through “established groups that do no evangelizing.”

Both the Southern Baptist Convention and Samaritan’s Purse, in contrast, combine relief efforts with evangelization.

Mark Kelly, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board, said some of the group’s personnel were already in Jordan and in Kuwait providing items such as blankets, diapers and clothes to non-Iraqis who had fled Iraq. The board has released $250,000 for this effort, he said.

Asked about the sensitivity of Muslims to Christian missionaries, Kelly replied: “I’m aware of the sensitivity of reporters to the issue. But what we’ve seen is that, where Southern Baptist workers have gone in to minister to human needs, they have been warmly received and people understand we’re doing it because we love God and want to minister to human needs.”

Kelly said the relief effort was misunderstood. “People who think about Christian missionaries in terms of persuading people to change their religion simply do not understand the Christian faith. It’s not about religion; it’s about a relationship with God.”

Ken Isaacs, international director of Samaritan’s Purse, said it has a team of 10 U.S. and Canadian relief specialists in Jordan, including a physician, two engineers and a public health expert.

He said the organization has spent about $500,000 to amass temporary shelters for 7,000 families; medical supplies to meet the general needs of 100,000 people for 90 days; pumps, tanks and disinfection equipment to provide water to as man as 20,000 people per day; and basic household items — such as blankets, pots, eating utensils, towels and soap — for about 5,000 families.

“We are an evangelical organization, nobody denies that. At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize we’re a very experienced relief organization,” Isaacs said in a telephone interview from Honduras, one of about 90 countries in which Samaritan’s Purse is active.

“Compassion and service is a vital expression of Christianity,” he continued. “We don’t have an evangelism strategy. We don’t have a strategy to share our faith. . . . We don’t have Bibles waiting in the wings, or Christian literature waiting in the wings.”

Isaacs maintained that Graham’s statements about Islam have not caused any problems for Samaritan’s Purse in Muslim countries. “Muslims in positions of authority know what Franklin has said, and they have confronted us with it. And I just say, ‘You know what? Our work will speak for itself.’ ”

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