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Some Christian Humanitarian Groups Put Bush Administration in Difficult Position - 2003-05-11

For several weeks now, the world has been hearing about the humanitarian crisis in Iraq. The United Nations and the Red Crescent Society are deeply involved in relief efforts there, but water and sanitation are still a problem and are responsible for a recent cholera outbreak in Basra. Several other humanitarian groups are at the Jordanian border, ready to enter Iraq as soon as they're given permission. But some of these groups are putting the Bush administration in a difficult situation because they're Christian, and in addition to humanitarianism, they may also be interested in evangelism.

The two groups being viewed with the greatest amount of skepticism by American Muslims are the Southern Baptist Convention and "Samaritan's Purse", both of which are made up of some of President Bush's most loyal constituents. Samaritan's Purse is headed by Franklin Graham, who generated controversy last year, when he told a group of Southern Baptists that the prophet Muhammad was a "terrorist" and Islam was inherently violent. Mr. Graham has not rescinded those remarks, and Samaritan's Purse was not willing to provide VOA with a spokesperson for this story. But in an editorial published last month in the Los Angeles Times, Franklin Graham insisted that any aid given to Iraqis by his group would come with "no strings attached." The Southern Baptist Convention has made a similar announcement.

Spokesperson Mark Kelly says "one of the things we've done is asked churches to assemble boxes of food. These are almost seventy pounds of staple food, enough to feed a family of five for about a month. We've stressed that we don't want any kind of Christian literature put in the boxes. They'll be identified clearly on the outside as a gift of love from Southern Baptist Christians in America. But the food itself is the ministry," he says.

But Southern Baptists are among the most active Christian missionaries in the world, and whether church members will actually follow that directive is unknown. American Muslims say they're particularly uncomfortable with the idea that Samaritan's Purse could be given access to Iraq, since the group has a history of tying missionary activity to its relief efforts and Muslims around the world are familiar with Franklin Graham's comments.

Hodan Hassan, a spokesperson for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says "it can increase the tension level in an already tense environment to have an organization that's headed up by someone who's very well-known in the Muslim and Arab world as an anti-Muslim bigot be seen coming in the wake of an invading army. There are many in that part of the world who didn't necessarily view the war in Iraq as a war of liberation, but saw it potentially as another Crusade."

And the Bush administration seems to be aware of that fact. Without mentioning any names, White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer told a reporter from the New York Times that President Bush "disagrees with anyone" who doesn't think Islam is a religion of peace. Mr. Fleischer has also stressed that it's not the administration's responsibility to determine which groups will be allowed into Iraq to provide aid.

Mark Kelly of the Southern Baptist Convention says his organization's relief efforts are actually moving more slowly than he'd like, because coalition forces haven't let any of the 800 church volunteers in the Middle East enter Iraq. "They're waiting to get an interim government in place, get a transitional government in place and get those authorities working, so that they would be the ones that relief groups would be relating to," he says.

Mr. Kelly says he's confident the Southern Baptist Convention will be given access to Iraq once a provisional government is established. He says Baptist volunteers will not hide their Christian identity, but they also won't engage in any proselytizing. Hodan Hassan of the Council on American-Islamic Relations says her group doesn't want to see Christian evangelism outlawed in Iraq, the way it is in Saudi Arabia. The group just doesn't want evangelism to be mixed with humanitarianism. "If Iraq wasn't a country that is just coming out of war, then of course in the marketplace of ideas, there's nothing wrong with someone coming and saying, you know, "This is Christianity, and this is why I think it's the right path for you." The problem is when evangelical groups of any kind come into a society that is in dire need, and in one hand has either the Bible or the Torah or the Koran, and the other hand have the food."

Hodan Hassan says there are a number of Christian groups that have done an excellent job of providing humanitarian aid in the Middle East, without trying to convert anyone. She points to the Catholic Relief Charities and the Lutheran World Fund as examples. The U.S. Agency for International Development has been charged with deciding which groups will be given government contracts to provide humanitarian relief to Iraq. In 2001, Samaritan's Purse received a USAID contract to construct temporary shelters, following an earthquake in El Salvador.