Mixing of Humanitarian Aid, Evangelism Continues to Stir Controversy

The ongoing controversy concerning the mixing of humanitarian aid work and evangelism continues to make its way into the limelight as scores of Christian groups take part in the massive efforts to aid victims of the quake-tsunami devastation that hit predominantly Muslim and Buddhist countries last month along the Indian Ocean rim.

With aid to the poor and oppressed being a central tenet of Christianity, missionary efforts over the centuries have often reached out to the needy by providing aid—whether it is physical and spiritual. However, many conflicts have erupted in cases where Christians cross the ambiguous line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, especially when it comes to mixing material aid with subtle or not-so-subtle invitations to convert.

Most recently, news agencies reported that members of Waco's Antioch Community Church, which sent a relief team into tsunami-stricken Sri Lanka, caused deep concern among Sri Lankan Christians and non-Christians by their seemingly aggressive proselytism among the country's Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists.

According to the New York Times, Sri Lankan Christian leaders worry that the such attempts at proselytizing could provoke a violent backlash against Christians in the predominantly-Buddhist country, which is already a religious tinderbox.

Last year, Buddhist hard-liners attacked more than 100 churches and the offices of the World Vision Christian aid group, accusing them of using money and social programs to cajole residents and coerce conversions.

For reasons such is these, most American aid groups, including those affiliated with religious organizations, strictly avoid mixing aid with missionary work. However, the Times reported that scattered reports of proselytizing in Sri Lanka, predominantly Muslim Indonesia, and largely-Hindu/Muslim India are arousing concerns that the goodwill spread by the American relief efforts could be undermined by resentment over missionary work.

On Jan. 13, Virginia-based World Help dropped plans to settle 50 Muslim children orphaned from Indonesia’s tsunami-ravaged Aceh province to a Christian orphanage outside Jakarta after the Indonesian government blocked the move.

Although the organization said the decision came after a broad government crackdown on Western organizations and not because of concerns that the group was proselytizing amid tsunami relief efforts, the Associated Press reported that World Help's plan drew criticism from Muslim groups, which said it would take advantage of people in a position of need.

World Help president Vernon Brewer, however, said his group had not gone overseas to evangelize in tsunami-stricken areas.

"First and foremost, our intention is not to evangelize but to show the love of Jesus Christ through our acts of compassion," Brewer told the Washington Post. "We are not using this open window of disaster to move in and set up a beachhead for evangelism. That's not the spirit of what we're trying to accomplish.... We just want to show the genuineness of our faith. We have no ulterior motive here."

"These are children who are unclaimed or unwanted," he continued. "We are not trying to rip them apart from any existing family members and change their culture and change their customs."

Gospel for Asia President K.P. Yohannon, who recently returned from Sri Lanka, similarly explained how efforts by his group and other Christian groups are not done with the motive to coerce others into the faith.

"We give [the survivors] all the material things, but at the same time, as [the workers'] hearts hear the pain of these people—they're crying—they sit down with them and share with them the love of God and the hope in Jesus," Yohannon told AgapePress. "And [to] those who can read, they give them scripture verses -- and that's all we do."

And the objective, he says, is not to make converts of those in dire circumstances. "As we go to these places, we are not going to give them food and clothes and medicine and housing to make them convert from their faith to Christianity," he says.

That is not the approach Jesus used—and neither do they, the GFA president added. "Jesus never did that; He went out doing good, it says in the Bible. He healed the sick; He fed the hungry; He cried with them."

However, as it is difficult to draw a bright line between what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in foreign countries, most religious charities—such as World Vision and Catholic Relief Services—prohibit mixing relief efforts with anything that might be viewed as proselytizing.