May 19, 2003
By Joseph Loconte
Media stories over the last several months have likened the
operations of relief agencies to the tactics of the Crusaders.
Editors at Time sent a memo (obtained by World magazine) to
reporters worldwide to gather material for a cover story about the
"radical crew of proselytizers" doing humanitarian work in Muslim
countries. "Do the missionaries feel that their goals are
consistent with those of the U.S. State Department?" the memo
Others are demanding that groups such as Franklin Graham's
Samaritan's Purse be kept out of Iraq. "In some places it might
even be worth allowing its relief workers in at the risk of
offending people's religious sensibilities," intoned a recent
Washington Post editorial. "But postwar Iraq is not one of those
places." Writing for Slate, Beliefnet's Steven Waldman complained
that "what Graham is doing probably isn't illegal; it's merely
Such criticism suggests that old stereotypes of Bible-pounding,
cross-waving missionaries are alive and well. In reality, most
relief organizations subscribe to a "code of conduct" established
by the International Red Cross to protect the rights of people
receiving assistance. It includes a "humanitarian imperative,"
emphasizing that aid be given regardless of race, creed, or
nationality. Most Christian humanitarian groups, including
Samaritan's Purse, operate pretty much the same way: They dispatch
workers to dangerous and impoverished parts of the world to provide
food, water, medical care, and other services in the name of Jesus.
Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, is not shy about
his aim to "share the news of the only One who can bring true
peace." Yet when Samaritan's Purse distributes water systems and
medical kits to 100,000 Iraqis, as it plans over the next few
months, it will do so without regard to the recipients' religious
Officials told me they knew of no Christian agencies that
condition aid on their ability to evangelize. "When our workers go
into a place to provide relief, their primary concern is to offer a
tangible expression of God's love," says Mark Kelly of the
International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.
"They respond to questions people ask, but there are no aggressive
attempts to persuade people about matters of faith."
Nevertheless, many assume that Christian ministries will be
viewed as covert agents of an American war on Islam. Muslim scholar
Abdulaziz Sachedina told Christianity Today that evangelistic
groups should "wait until things cool off" in Iraq. That could take
some waiting. According to Dana Robert of Boston University's
School of Theology, missionaries are inevitably seen as
"representatives of Western political and economic power." Yet
they're not the only ones: Because most Islamic countries lack a
truly independent civil society, the same suspicion that greets
Christian aid workers extends equally to Western non-governmental
Christian NGOs, however, appear as capable as their secular
counterparts at overcoming local antagonism. Many evangelical
charities, for example, have an impressive track record of
assistance to Muslims. World Concern, launched in 1955, now
operates in 30 countries, some with Islamic majorities. "Some of
the most sensitive countries are the ones in which we've worked
longest," says president Paul Kennel. Compassion International has
cared for needy children in Islamic states since the 1960s. World
Vision has provided food aid in the Middle East for over 25 years.
"We don't go in through the back door," says public policy director
Serge Duss. "We're invited in by government leaders."
Typically, Christian relief groups work with indigenous churches
and other established local organizations. Venture International
pairs Christian families in the Middle East with Muslim families to
provide shelter, education, and job training. International Aid,
which offers free medical care, is tapping a network of 72
Christian congregations in Iraq to set up medical clinics around
the country. "The churches are our eyes and ears and are sensitive
to cultural conflicts," says president Myles Fish. "The people
coming for help know who the host is, so it's not an offense to
Certainly, some ministers have heedlessly given offense to
Muslims, with clumsy criticisms following the September 11
terrorist attacks. Franklin Graham called Islam "very evil and
wicked," while former Southern Baptist Convention president Jerry
Vines told fellow Baptists that Muhammad was a "demon-possessed
pedophile." Such comments, recycled endlessly by fiery clerics,
surely don't help ease suspicions. But they are exceptions. No
Christian minister of any repute has called for a "holy war"
against Islam, and relief groups tend to approach their
humanitarian work with great political and theological delicacy.
Evangelism, when allowed by local laws, hardly seems aggressive: It
may involve conversations about faith or the distribution of Bibles
or religious literature. Charity leaders frequently stress their
regard for Muslims as made in God's image and objects of divine
Nevertheless, many critics resent an evangelical faith that
mixes Christian proclamation with Christian compassion; they simply
equate evangelism with coercion. That was the subtext for several
speakers at a recent gathering of religious relief organizations in
Washington, D.C. "We do not actively proselytize," Behram Pastakia,
of the Zoroastrian Association of Metropolitan Washington, assured
his colleagues. "Ours is a religion of individual choice." Charles
Kimball, author of "When Religion Becomes Evil," claims that
missionary activity motivated by "absolute truth claims" invites
intolerance and violence. Liberal Christians often say the same.
"Most faith-related aid groups say that even subtle proselytizing
would endanger their goodwill efforts," warn editors at the
Christian Century. Lutheran World Relief does not evangelize. "Our
policy is to help humans, not bring them to Jesus," says a
spokesman. The same is true at Church World Service, the relief arm
of mainline Protestant churches. "We are very specifically a
humanitarian aid agency," spokesperson Jan Dragin told Beliefnet.
"It just so happens our roots are faith-based."
The White House doesn't appear to share this secularizing bent.
Last December, President Bush created an Office of Faith-Based and
Community Initiatives at the Agency for International Development
to support religious charities in developing nations. Says AID
administrator Andrew Natsios: "Such organizations are able to
address the deepest and most profound needs of human society." Bush
clearly sees their work as consistent with efforts to extend
political and religious freedom abroad. Against calls to ban
evangelical charities from Iraq, the White House says it won't
blacklist organizations because of their religious beliefs.
(Indeed, under the Constitution, it couldn't do so, short of
banning all private relief groups, secular and religious.)
Undoubtedly, as the Time memo suggests, the State Department's
work can be made more complicated by religious groups whose goals
it doesn't direct. In an earlier era of nation-building--back in
the days of Britain's East India Company--the entry of missionaries
into foreign lands was restricted "to protect the native
inhabitants in the free and undisturbed possession of their
religious opinions." And also, of course, to protect lucrative
trade relations from disruption by faith-based reformers. In the
18th century that meant cheap opium from India and slaves from
Africa. "There could not be a greater contrast between the
missionaries' motives," writes Niall Ferguson of New York
University, "and those of previous generations of empire-builders,
the swashbucklers, the slavers and the settlers." Today's critics
also appear earthly minded. Their solicitude for the "religious
sensibilities" of Muslims can be hard to distinguish from the goal
of upholding the secular ethos of international development
As for the motives of Christians involved in works of mercy,
most would point to the example of Jesus in the gospels. When he
encountered a crowd of anxious pilgrims, "he welcomed them and
spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who needed
healing." Iraq surely could use a measure of healing these days,
and evangelical charities are a decent place to find it.
Originally appeared in the
-Joseph Loconte is the
William E. Simon fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the
Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public
Mission: Possible: Joseph Loconte describes "What the Christian relief organizations are really up to in Iraq."
William E. Simon Fellow in Religion and a Free Society
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