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Christian Groups Mix Missionary Work With Aid

Some Christians view sending disaster relief to tsunami victims in Southeast Asia as an opportunity to preach the gospel. The notion doesn’t sit well in some places.

“Christians See Conversion Opportunities in Disaster Relief,” warned a Dec. 28 headline on the online Hindu Press International. “While the Christian charity exhibited by the rapid response of Christian organizations is admirable, the ulterior motives of conversion expressed by some are disturbing,” the article said.

The Indonesian Embassy in Singapore refuted text messages circulating asking Muslim parents to adopt orphans from the devastated Indonesian province of Aceh.

“Please ask among friends who would like to adopt orphans from Aceh,” read one version of the message. “300 orphans coming soon. Need Muslim homes. Christian missionaries want them. Pls help!”

Indonesia’s government placed a temporary ban on adoptions from Aceh, where an estimated 35,000 children have been orphaned or separated from their parents, after UNICEF warned that child-trafficking gangs might be selling orphaned children into forced labor or prostitution in other countries, according to the Jakarta Post.

But the widely circulated text message illustrates the tension that exists in some of the hardest-hit area over proselytizing by Christian missionaries.

India’s state of Tamil Nadu, for example is significant for many Hindus, because of its 2002 Anti-Conversion Bill, meant to prevent poor Hindus from being converted to Christianity by financial inducements. Christian leaders deny using forced conversions, but several organizations distributing relief cite spiritual as well as physical needs.

“In times like these, we know that God opens the hearts of those who suffer, and we pray that as our workers demonstrate God’s love to them, many of them will come to know for the first time that real security comes only through Him,” K.P. Yohannan, president of Gospel for Asia, said on Crosswalk.com.

Ajith Fernando of Youth for Christ was quoted as saying: “We have prayed and wept for our nation for many years. The most urgent of my prayers has always been that my people would turn to Jesus. I pray that this terrible, terrible tragedy might be used by God to break through into the lives of many of our people.”

Baptist Press carried comments by an International Mission Board worker using a pseudonym because of security concerns noting that relief efforts in parts of Indonesia that have been closed to Westerners for 18 months represent a “phenomenal opportunity for the rest of the world–and for the body of Christ–to step up and make an impact.”

“It’s an opportunity to [show them] there are people that love them and want to care for them through this difficult time,” the worker said. “This will be a phenomenal time for the people of Aceh to understand who Christ is.”

Vince Isner of FaithfulAmerica.org, reported in a blog from Sri Lanka that some groups are providing aid followed by an altar call. Such activities cause all American aid agencies—even those that avoid proselytizing—to be viewed with suspicion, he said.

Sri Lanka has a long history of British colonialism, which includes both exploitation and zealous Christian missionary activity, Isner explained. The nation gained independence in 1948, but a number of mission groups from the U.S. have re-entered for aggressive evangelization in recent years. Some Buddhists accuse the groups of using unethical practices to win converts.

Even some evangelical aid groups say the midst of a disaster is the wrong time to evangelize. Steve Levitt of World Vision told the Associated Press that the organization does not evangelize or proselytize but tries to “demonstrate God’s love” through its relief and development work.

“It’s not appropriate in a crisis like this to take advantage of people who are hurting and suffering,” Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan’s Purse, said in a Knight-Ridder news story.

But Graham indicated to a Baltimore Sun reporter that he, too, viewed humanitarian aid as a means to an end. Of victims and their families, he told the newspaper, “I would hope that they would come to know the God I know.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.