The New York Times (free registration required) has an article up detailing more reports of Christian aid groups being accused of trying to convert victims of the December tsunami during their relief efforts. In particular the Texas based Antioch Community Church is going as far as trying to heal some folks by laying on hands, so far to no avail. Local Christians, who tend to be of a minority status in those countries, are getting pretty pissed off about these reports as they fear it’ll generate a backlash against them once the missionaries… er… aid groups go home.
Most American groups, including those affiliated with religious organizations, strictly avoid mixing aid and missionary work. But scattered reports of proselytizing in Sri Lanka; Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim; and India, with large Hindu and Muslim populations, are arousing concerns that the good will spread by the American relief efforts may be undermined by resentment.
The Rev. Sarangika Fernando, a local Methodist minister, witnessed one of the prayer sessions in Sri Lanka and accused the Americans of acting unethically with traumatized people. “They said, ‘In the name of Jesus, she must be cured!’ ” he said. “As a priest, I was really upset.”
In Sri Lanka, alarmed local Christian leaders say proselytizing at such a sensitive time could reverse the grass-roots interfaith cooperation that has emerged since the tsunami and endanger Christians, who make up 7 percent of the population. The country also has sizable Hindu and Muslim minorities.
The Rev. Duleep Fernando, a Methodist minister based in Colombo, the capital, brought the Americans to the camp here. Mr. Fernando said they had described themselves as humanitarian aid workers. He and other Sri Lankan Christian leaders say raising religion with traumatized refugees is unethical.
“We have told them this is not right, but now we don’t have any control over them,” said Mr. Fernando, who called the group’s Web site postings “unnecessarily explosive.”
“This is a dangerous situation,” he said.
When confronted by reporters on their attempts at conversion the leader one of of the groups tried to claim that there was nothing religious about his group or its goals:
Sri Lankan refugees, camp administrators and church officials said the Americans here had identified themselves only as a humanitarian aid group. In an interview here on Wednesday, Pat Murphy, 49, a leader of the team, said the group was a nongovernmental organization, and not a church group. “It’s an NGO,” Mr. Murphy said. “Just your plain vanilla NGO that does aid work.”
But the church’s Web site says the Americans are one of four teams – for a total of 75 people – dispatched to Sri Lanka and Indonesia who have persuaded dozens of people to “come to Christ.”
When the group’s postings were read to Mr. Murphy, he confirmed that the Americans were from the Antioch Community Church, but said the group would never use relief goods and gifts to entice or pressure people into becoming Christians. He denied that the team, which sent about half its 24 members to work in the eastern town of Kalmunai, was trying to convert people. The church has 2,000 members.
“We simply provide people with information,” he said, “and they do with that what they like.”
Another fine example of commitment to honesty that so many Christians claim to honor. Meanwhile the group’s website makes their intentions quite clear:
A Jan. 18 posting from the team in Indonesia says the country’s devastated Aceh Province is “ripe for Jesus!!”
“What an opportunity,” it adds. “It has been closed for five years, and the missionaries in Indonesia consider it the most militant and difficult place for ministry. The door is wide open and the people are hungry.”
The Rev. Jimmy Seibert, the senior pastor of the Waco church, said in a telephone interview that the church would evaluate whether the group’s members should identify themselves as aid workers. But he said the church believes missionary work and aid work “is one thing, not two separate things.”
“My hope is that as a follower of Jesus they would bring who they are into the workplace,” he said, “whether they are in a workplace in America or a workplace in Sri Lanka.”
At least these folks aren’t packing up their relief supplies and heading out of town when the locals refuse to convert. Many of the locals feel they have little choice, but put up with the conversion attempts due to their desperate situation.
W. L. P. Wilson, 38, a disabled fisherman with a sixth-grade education, said he allowed the Americans to pray three times for the healing of his paralyzed lower leg because he was desperate to provide for his wife and three children again. Mr. Wilson, a Buddhist, said that he believed that the Americans were trying to convert him to Christianity but that he was in “a helpless situation now” and needed aid.
“They told me to always think about God and about Jesus and you will be healed,” he said. “Whenever I ask for help they always mention God, but they do not give any money for treatment.”
Well of course not. You don’t need money for treatment. All you need is to accept Jesus Christ as your savior and he will heal you for free! Says so right here in this handy Bible we brought for you. You can keep it. We’ve got 40,000 more in these other crates we brought. Have a wonderful day in Jesus!