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Mission: Possible

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Numerous hazards threaten U.S. democracy-building in Iraq. They include theocratic Shia radicals, mischief and thuggery by Baath party officials, misjudgments by American officials, and--to hear some critics tell it--the presence of Christian relief organizations.

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 asked.

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 immoral."

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 views.

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 organizations.

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 them."

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 love.

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 efforts.

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 Weekly Standard.

-Joseph Loconte is the William E. Simon fellow in Religion and a Free Society at the Heritage Foundation and a commentator for National Public Radio.

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