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In Asia, some Christian groups spread supplies - and the word

BY JIM REMSEN, Knight Ridder Newspapers, Jan 9, 2005

Philadelphia, USA -- As Western humanitarian organizations unleash an armada of relief supplies and workers into Asia's crisis zone, some evangelical Christian groups aim to bring the Gospel to the victims, as well.

Religious groups promise to be a major presence in the massive relief and reconstruction effort. InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based nongovernment organizations, reports that of its 55 member agencies providing tsunami aid, 22 are faith-based.

Most of the religious players, including the Red Cross, the American Jewish World Service, and Lutheran World Relief, have rules against proselytizing.

But some evangelical groups active in Asia, including the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board, Gospel for Asia, and the Christian and Missionary Alliance, say the Bible always impels them to create converts to the faith.

"This (disaster) is one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share his love with people," said K.P. Yohannan, president of the Texas-based Gospel for Asia. In an interview, Yohannan said his 14,500 "native missionaries" in India, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands are giving survivors Bibles and booklets about "how to find hope in this time through the word of God."

In Krabi, Thailand, a Southern Baptist church had been "praying for a way to make inroads" with a particular ethnic group of fishermen, according to Southern Baptist relief coordinator Pat Julian. Then came the tsunami, "a phenomenal opportunity" to provide ministry and care, Julian told the Baptist Press news service.

In Andhra Pradesh, India, a plan is developing to build "Christian communities" to replace destroyed seashore villages. In a dispatch that the evangelical group Focus on the Family posted on its Family.org Web site, James Rebbavarapu of India Christian Ministries said a team of U.S. engineers had agreed to help design villages of up to 400 homes each, "with a church building in the center of them."

Not all evangelicals agree with these tactics.

"It's not appropriate in a crisis like this to take advantage of people who are hurting and suffering," said the Rev. Franklin Graham, head of Samaritan's Purse and son of evangelist Billy Graham.

Samaritan's Purse is rushing $4 million in sanitation, food, medical and housing supplies to its teams in Sri Lanka and Indonesia. But Graham, in a phone interview from his North Carolina headquarters, said there were no plans to hand out Christian literature with the relief.

"Maybe another day, if they ask why I come, I'd say, `I'm a Christian and I believe the Bible tells me to do this,'" Graham said. "But now isn't the time. We have to save lives."

As Graham knows, laws and customs in non-Christian lands also can inhibit proselytizing. Plans by Samaritan's Purse and other evangelical groups to join postwar reconstruction efforts in Iraq in 2003 raised concerns that they would violate Muslim bans on proselytizing and undercut U.S. efforts to improve ties with the Islamic world.

Yohannan said Sri Lankan officials are "extremely angry" with Christian missionary work and want to outlaw proselytizing. Some states in southern India have anti-conversion laws that bar "fraudulent manipulation," he said, adding: "I cannot tell you there is a hell awaiting you because it can be interpreted as a fear tactic." But one of the states, Tamil Nadu, recently repealed its law, and others don't enforce theirs, Yohannan said.

Indonesia, a major arena of relief work, does not ban evangelizing, said Riaz Saehu, spokesman for the Indonesian Embassy in Washington.

Though the country has a Muslim majority, Saehu said, it accords official status to Catholicism, Protestantism, Hinduism and Buddhism, and "people can do whatever to try to influence others."

Grass-roots resistance may be a greater impediment to evangelists. Saehu said residents of the hard-hit Aceh province are strict Muslims who "couldn't accept (missionary) activities regardless of the law." Yohannan said Hindu and Muslim extremists have burned Bibles and beaten pastors from his churches in the past.

"It's a very sensitive issue," Saehu said.

The U.S. government has said it hopes American tsunami aid improves its image abroad, particularly with Muslims. At the same time, it has not tried to impede evangelical efforts, nor has it received complaints about them, State Department spokesman Edgar Vasquez said.

"We can't control them," Vasquez said. "They are free to do what they're going to do."

Meanwhile, other religious relief groups eschew evangelizing. Many are signatories of a Red Cross-Red Crescent code of conduct that requires, among other things, that aid "not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint."

Church World Service, the humanitarian arm of the National Council of Churches, is among the signatories.

"We carry out our work as a calling as Christians, but it's not carried out based on any form of proselytization," said Rick Augsberger, director of the agency's emergency-response program. Faith issues might be shared informally, he said, "but not as an objective."


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