JAKARTA: The Church of Scientology is applying its mind-over-matter healing techniques to injured tsunami survivors in Aceh. Jews and Quakers are sending humanitarian aid. Radical Islamic groups are providing “spiritual guidance”.
Scores of religious and humanitarian groups have, quite literally, pitched their tents in Indonesia’s Aceh, after the province of 4 million people was pulverised by the strongest quake in 40 years and unprecedented tsunami.
Flying in on Cessnas and commercial aircraft or driving in on smashed up roads, an army of aid workers is bustling about the province – which had been closed to almost all outsiders until the December 26 disaster, the most widespread natural calamity in living memory.
“This is the most amazing response we’ve ever had to an appeal,” said Conny Lenneberg, senior programme coordinator for World Vision, one of the largest private aid groups in Aceh.
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an unprecedented response to an unprecedented catastrophe that has also hit India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the Maldives, Myanmar, Bangladesh and several east African nations.
Governments across the world have committed $US5.5 billion ($NZ7.96 billion) toward relief, while private individuals and corporations have pledged at least another $US2 billion so far. Even North Korea promised $US150,000.
A tent city housing 60 international groups and 1125 aid workers from across the world has sprouted up at the airport in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh province. UN relief efforts alone represent 90 countries.
Indonesia has lifted a state of civil emergency, imposed to allow the military a free hand to crush a separatist revolt, to allow foreign aid groups and the media entry into Aceh.
The groups meet daily under the auspices of the United Nations and host Indonesia to make sure that things like woollen blankets don’t go to the tropics and soft drinks aren’t loaded instead of antibiotics onto trucks bound for field hospitals.
The UN says it needs to feed or shelter up to 5 million people affected by the disaster and warns disease could push up the death toll, now at more than 157,000 around the Indian Ocean rim.
There has been much concern in Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, that some of the Western agencies involved in the relief could also be pushing a religious agenda.
But although groups from the Jewish organisation B’Nai Brith and Catholic Relief Services to evangelical Christians and Mormons are raising money or working with the survivors, little in the way of missionary work can be seen.
World Vision may be a “Christian humanitarian organisation” but its code of conduct outlaws proselytising. “We don’t mix missionary work with aid work,” Lenneberg said.
It’s an old debate going back to at least the 16th century when the Jesuits and Franciscans competed for souls in China. Should religion follow trade, or in this case, aid? Nowadays, most faith-based relief groups say they defer to local cultures and let their actions speak louder than words.
That’s especially so in Aceh, where more than 95 per cent of the population professes Islam.
The Indonesian Mujahideen Council (MMI), which seeks to establish an Islamic state in the world’s most populous Muslim country, makes no such distinction.
Members of the group, founded by radical cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, can be seen around Aceh’s refugee camps with their skull caps and flowing robes distributing spiritual help along with food and clothes to refugees.
“We try to help them strengthen their mental condition, so they become more stable,” MMI executive chairman Irfan Awwas said.
Authorities in the region say Bashir headed the al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah and is on trial in a Jakarta court.
Prosecutors have accused Bashir of using his “religious charisma” to incite bomb attacks on Bali in 2002 that killed 202 people and also a suicide blast outside the JW Marriott Hotel in Jakarta the following year. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Indonesia’s Social Welfare Minister Alwi Shihab, who is coordinating the overall relief effort in Aceh, said neither Muslims nor Christian evangelists are a problem.
“I have met with some of the radical groups and their main concern is the humanitarian mission,” he said. “I don’t think the Christians would do (missionary work). That would backfire.”
Experts said any missionary work was bound to fail, especially in Aceh, where people are fiercely independent and resistant to outside influence.
“I don’t think it’s fertile ground. It never has been,” said Sidney Jones, Southeast Asia director for the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based non-government body dedicated to helping resolve deadly conflicts.
Jones said MMI and other groups branded as militant, such as the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), would be keen to show they were better at distributing aid than Western groups, which needed to be careful to observe Islamic codes of behaviour.
Most faith-based aid groups say acts of mercy are rewarding enough without trying to convert anybody.
Members of the Scientology Emergency Response Team can be spotted around the sprawling refugee camps in their yellow T-shirts giving succour to the injured.
The Church of Scientology, which counts actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta among its members, teaches that technology can expand the mind and help solve problems and uses mind over matter healing techniques the group calls “Assists”.
It’s website (www.scientology.org) shows one member purportedly healing the broken arm of an Acehnese man in a Banda Aceh field hospital.