April 4, 2003
NASHVILLE -- U.S.-based Christian relief organizations are poised to offer medicine, food, and other supplies to needy Iraqis once the war ends, but critics are concerned the groups may use humanitarian aid to make inroads in the predominantly Muslim nation.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington advocacy group, said it was especially upset to hear that the relief agency Samaritan's Purse, run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, planned to work in Iraq. Graham has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."
"It's particularly disturbing that a group headed by a man who openly states he believes the faith of Islam is evil would enter into a Muslim country in the wake of an invading army," council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
Like most Christian agencies, Samaritan's Purse says it won't proselytize.
"In Iraq, as is the case wherever we work, Samaritan's Purse will offer physical assistance to those who need it, with no strings attached," Graham wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times' Thursday editions.
"We don't have to preach in order to be a Christian relief organization. Sometimes the best preaching we can do is simply being there with a cup of cold water, exhibiting Christ's spirit of serving others."
Samaritan's Purse says it's prepared to provide drinking water for up to 20,000 Iraqi families, build temporary shelter for more than 4,000 families and supply packages of household items for 5,000 families.
Many other U.S. relief groups have already been working in the region for years, focusing on building relationships with aid organizations and local community groups in the Mideast.
The United Methodist Church, Southern Baptist Convention and U.S. Roman Catholics all have significant efforts in the region. So does Church World Service, the relief agency for the National Council of Churches, composed of Protestant and Orthodox denominations.
At the Nashville headquarters of Healing Hands International, workers had been assembling hundreds of health-and-hygiene kits for Afghanistan. Now, the group is drawing up plans to help Iraqis.
The Healing Hands kits contain items such as soap, shampoo, bandages, washcloths and toothbrushes -- but no spiritual materials such as Bibles or Christian tracts.
Healing Hands spokesman Trent Wheeler said the approach of Christian relief groups has shifted. "It used to be primarily, 'Preach, preach, preach,' " he said.
The new strategy is to help first and explain Christianity later, Wheeler explained.
Kevin King, a manager for the Mennonite Central Committee based in Akron, Pa., recalled a conversation he had with an Iraqi farmer last year when he tried to explain what Mennonites believe.
King's organization, which has provided about $6.4-million in aid to Iraq since 1990, had helped the farmer improve his tomato crop. When the two spoke about peace and religion, the farmer did not understand the Mennonite faith and suggested, "Maybe we could become Muslim Mennonites."
King said it brought home the lesson that talking about Christianity was sometimes less effective than just acting with Christian charity.