1/20/2005

Christian missionaries and tsunami relief. what could go wrong?

via Yahoo India:

Samanthapettai, Jan 16 (ANI): Rage and fury has gripped this tsunami-hit tiny Hindu village in India's southern Tamil Nadu after a group of Christian missionaries allegedly refused them aid for not agreeing to follow their religion.

Samanthapettai, near the temple town of Madurai, faced near devastation on the December 26 when massive tidal waves wiped it clean of homes and lives.

Most of the 200 people here are homeless or displaced , battling to rebuild lives and locating lost family members besides facing risks of epidemic,disease and trauma.

Jubilant at seeing the relief trucks loaded with food, clothes and the much-needed medicines the villagers, many of who have not had a square meal in days, were shocked when the nuns asked them to convert before distributing biscuits and water.

Heated arguments broke out as the locals forcibly tried to stop the relief trucks from leaving. The missionaries, who rushed into their cars on seeing television reporters and the cameras refusing to comment on the incident and managed to leave the village.

Disappointed and shocked into disbelief the hapless villagers still await aid.

"Many NGOs (volunteer groups) are extending help to us but there in our village the NGO, which was till now helping us is now asking us to follow the Christian religion. We are staunch followers of Hindu religion and refused their request. And after that these people with their aid materials are leaving the village without distributing that to us," Rajni Kumar, a villager said.


What bothers me most about this is the utter lack of Christian charity by these so called "missionaries". How can you look at a hungry child's outstretched hand and deny them the food they need?

The worst thing is that the Christian faith as a whole is maligned unfairly by this kind of behavior - especially since there has been a lot of this Christian fundamentalist intolerance on display recently.

UPDATE: I am surprised at the "it can't be true" denials I'm receiving in comments and via emails. Josh emails:

find the Yahoo India story somewhat suspicious, mostly because it mentions nuns, which strongly implies that the Christians in question were Roman Catholic. (You also get nuns in Christian Orthodoxy, but the likelihood that they're delivering aid in Indian is close to nil -- contrast with the rather strong presence of Catholic nuns in the country.) Suffice it to say that this just isn't something you'd typically see Catholics doing -- their aid and relief efforts are generally fairly professional and nondiscriminatory. Now, were these Protestants of a certain stripe, I'd be more inclined to believe it; however, you don't usually get those types very far out of east Texas, to say nothing of Tamil Nadu. Just my $0.02 -- it seems really fishy.


Andrew made a similar point in comments. Let me first point out that "nuns" is a generic term which of course someone froma Roman Catholic background (such as Andrew and Josh) would interpret in a specific manner. The words "priest" and "pastor" are interchangeably used (and translated) in comon speech. Given that there are hundreds of religious organizations operating in a relief capacity, each with their own legions of personnel, so some confusion is expected.

But more importantly, there's no reason to think that this behavior is beyond the pale of a Christian sect (as Joshua S. predictably implies in comments). This is hardly an isolated report. If an Indian-based news source is too suspect, then perhaps an Anglo source will be more palatable? Here's the Chicago Tribune:

AKKARAIPETTAI, India -- The Christian evangelists came in the morning, wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts emblazoned with "Believers Church" on the back and "Gospel for Asia" on the front. They loaded up hundreds of villagers, mostly Hindus, in vans and trucks and drove them 6 miles away.

There, away from the eyes of village officials, each tsunami survivor received relief supplies--a sleeping mat, a plate, a sari, a 55-pound bag of rice and, in the bottom of a white plastic bag proclaiming "Believers Church Tsunami Relief," a book containing biblical verses warning against the dangers of alcohol.

"What do I do?" asked Muthammal, 35, who uses one name like many in southern India and wears the red bindi on her forehead showing she's Hindu. Like many here, she cannot read. "They are asking us to come all this way. It is so difficult."

Members of the Believers Church also have handed out Bibles to tsunami survivors on the streets and in relief camps. They set up an orphanage for 108 children, including many Hindus, and asked the children to recite Christian prayers six times a day. The Protestant church did not register the orphanage with the government, authorities said. K.P. Yohannan, the leader of Believers Church and Gospel for Asia, said the church had tried to get government permission.


The article goes on to detail a number of other groups, but the basic point here is clear: there most certainly are Christian aid groups that are taking advantage of tsunami victims. This is undeniable. Whether the Vatican is involved or not is irrelevant; my own affinity for the Roman Catholic organization (which is the best analogy in Christianity to my own religious hierarchy) actually makes me sympathetic to Andrew and Jish (T)'s defense, but I did not lambast the Catholic Church in my original post. In fact, I think of "nuns" in a generic sense myself and basically assumed it was a Protestant group. Protestants right here in the US are quite transparent about their intentions:

In an e-mailed weekly newsletter called "Falwell Confidential," which was obtained by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the evangelist said: "Hundreds of thousands are in dire need of medical attention and personal counselling. And in this heavily Muslim part of the world, millions have never even heard of Jesus Christ."

The newsletter, which is distributed by Jerry Falwell Ministries, said donations would be used to distribute food and Gospel tracts in the region.


We can have a legitimate debate about whether prosletyzation is in fact wrong, for a group that believes its ministry is as important a salvation of the sufferer's soul as the food is for their body. But what gets my goat is the denial of food outright. Pretending that Christian missionaries don't have ulterior motives is pure denial, and there's no reaon to discount the report, given that the actively pro-prosletyzation agenda of many such groups is hardly a secret.

13 comments:

Andrew said...

I'm sorry, but I find the whole thing suspicious, especially in that it was allegedly nuns. As far as I can tell from my experience with the RCC, "Convert of starve!" isn't really their MO.

This story doesn't ring true.

Joshua Scholar said...

I'm not a Christian (and I don't come from a Christian family), but I agree with Andrew that this isn't consistant with the history of Christian charity.

In my judgement the story is much more likely to be an exagguration planted by fundimentalists of some other religion than the truth.

Joshua Scholar said...

The fact is that Christians usually have some religious materials on hand to give away along with any charity work they do and/or there's a preacher or priest who may make a sermon - that's considered a relgious duty.

But And of course this offends fundimentalists of other religions who may exaggurate what they see as a crime. Or perhaps there is a misunderstanding by those who didn't expect to sit through a sermon before being fed. Being told, "not yet" might be mistaken for "not you"

Coersion is very rare, and infinitely rarer than it was a century or two ago. There's a feeling that gratitude after the fact is much more effective at attracting and holding people.

Peter Schrenk said...

This story does seem suspicious enough that a good dose of skepticism is healthy. This is not to say that it can't be true. As a Christian, I donated to an explicitly Christian relief organization for use in the area affected by the tsunami. I sincerely hope that they don't use the funds for this sort of coercion. In fact, I have reason to believe they will not, which is one reason I donated money to them specifically. However, I do know that they will not hide the fact that this aid is coming from Christians. I see no problem in that at all. This is not self-serving. It would be self-serving to give aid and claim to be doing so out of some innate moral virtue. I give because it is God's money, and I think that He should get the credit.

As a side note, to my knowledge "nun" is not very generic. I have never heard of a protestant nun. It is possible that a non-Christian could be confused and believe that any Christian woman is a "nun". I have no idea.

Aziz Poonawalla said...

I for one emphatically hope that any Christian relief organization providing aid to victims of the tsunami do get explicit credit, at the very least the name of the organization on the packages if not official recognition by the local government. This builds cross-faith ties and fosters mutual human respect. Whether it leads a recipient to also question their faith and perhaps convert is a side issue of irrelevance - thats a personal decision and shouldn't be a concern.

My beef here is the refusal of aid - and given the naked agenda towards prosletyzation of some of these groups, I don't find it as unthinkable as all that. There are likely to be some extremist groups under the missionary umbrella.

When I hear the word nun, I think of Christianity in general, not Catholics or Protestants as sects. And I'm a native-born American. People of other faiths ,living in different cultures just are not going to have the same narrower understanding of the word "nun" the way you do. It jyst means "female priest". Heck, there arent even technically priests in Proestant faiths, correct? Those are actually "pastors" - but I use the terms interchangebaly. Laziness, perhaps, but its not a critical distinction for my purposes.

Joshua Scholar said...

"there's no reaon to discount the report, given that the actively pro-prosletyzation agenda of many such groups is hardly a secret."NO ONE was denying that Christian charities have a prosletyzation agenda, we were only denying that its normal to demand an instant conversion before giving charity.

Its fairly normal to demand that people listen to a sermon beforehand but just imagine someone who came from a non-Christian country being subjected to a sermon he didn't expect - he might not realize that the sermon DOES NOT imply that there are strings attached to reciving aid afterwards.The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that a misunderstanding is the most likely cause of the report.

Imagine the confusions of expectation that could occur durring a sermon. Some listeners wouldn't realize that the non-"saved" would be given aid just like the "saved" after the sermon (that is the way it's done, but would an Indian know that?). And if an angry victim of the tsunami demanded that the sermon be stopped and the aid given out to everyone immediately, the Christian aid workers might not realize what assumptions were being made and try to exclude someone they saw as a trouble-maker. Cultural misunderstanding.

Joshua Scholar said...

The clearest thing to say is that it could be highly confusing that recipients are being told a message with subtle distinctions:

1. there is a precondition on the aid - that you listen.
2. but you don't have to actually believe what you are being told in order to recieve aid
3. and yet there is a demand that you believe (being relayed from God), yet that demand is not a precondition on recieving aid.

Now imagine a language barrier on top of that.
As you said, what could go wrong?

Aziz Poonawalla said...

Joshua, your argument boils down to making excuses. It's a ludicrous stretch, and you'd recognize that if it were aimed at Islam rather than Christianity. Unless you've got mind readig powers or something you're just hand waving, and pretty furiously at that.

Joshua Scholar said...

My point is that since Christianity has been changing with the societies it lives in.

Take the Catholic Church, for instance. The Vatican itself is much more liberal than Catholic churches in South America, but it's pretty unlikely that the report was literally correct in claiming that aid workers demanded conversions as payment for aid even if the worker came from South America.

I'm not an expert, but I would guess that 200 years ago such a demand would have been pretty likely - certainly priests in North America converted American Indian children without their parents concent. Maybe 50 years ago there were outposts like Irland where coersion was still likely - once again look at the horrific stories of the Magdelane Laundries.

Anyway, I wasn't trying to excuse the rudeness of preachering charities (something we take as a given in our society), rather I was making a distinction between that rudeness and an actual demand that only Christians be helped which would be something much worse than rudeness. I'm saying I don't believe that the report is literally correct.

Joe Lawrence said...

It's quite common for religious charities in the U.S. to require those who accept their help to hear a religious message or accept some religious literature. These people believe that eternal suffering awaits those who don't convert, so from their perspective, offering physical help without a religious message is cruel. I am unfamiliar with an organization that requires a conversion before it will help, though. It might happen, but if so is no more representative of the Christian faith than some of the actively cruel, widely denounced, yet curiously well-funded atrocities carried out by a few members of other faiths.

You mention in your article that the Catholic church (among Christian churches) most resembles the hierarchy of your own religion.

I'm curious.

1)What religion is that (yours)?
2)How much help, generally, has it rendered to tsunami victims (countries that weren't hit helping countries that were)?
3)How is that aid distributed?
4)Does your religion participate in wide-spread charitable efforts on foreign soil?
5)Is this charity (assuming it exist) carried out without the effort to proselytize?
6)What actions (if any)have misguided members of your faith taken to convert others or that would cause suffering to those who would not convert?
7)How is your faith in your religion shaken by those misguided actions and what are the leaders of your faith saying about those actions?
8)From the above answers, do you believe your religion demonstrates better behavior than the Christian faith?

The vast majority of Christians, nearly all of those who contributed the money and effort to help tsunami victims, would emphatically denounce exchanging goods for conversions. For one thing, Christians believe conversions are an internal matter and merely saying "I believe, now give me the food" wouldn't mean anything to them, anyway. Whether you tell a true story or not, no doubt foolish and cruel actions are taken in the name of all religions. The Christian faith should also be judged by the generosity and beliefs of the millions who contributed to the aid of tsunami victims.

Joe

Aziz Poonawalla said...

All right Joe, I'll extend you benefit of teh doubt and do my best to answer your questions in good faith.

First, note that "other religions do it too" is not a defense of immoral actions. I hold that withholding of aid contingent upon religious conversion is immoral. Distributing literature along with aid is not as contentious (though I find it unethical).

I think I detect some defensiveness on your part regarding Christianity. As I have taken pains to emphasise, I have not lambasted all of Christianity for the actions of these few. I wish more Christians were willing to extend the same courtesy to me and mine.

Your questions:

1)What religion is that (yours)?

Dawoodi Bohra Muslims, an Ismaili branch of the Shi'a sect. More information:

Bohras2)How much help, generally, has it rendered to tsunami victims (countries that weren't hit helping countries that were)?

See a partial list here, submitted by various jamaats (congregations) around the world.

3)How is that aid distributed?

In partnership with local state and provincial governments, primarily. IN some cases the local governments have requested goods and materials rather than money, so we have complied. In others, they have requested monetary donations through specific official channels. Again, we comply. All aid is channelled only through official avenues and not disbursed privately except in those areas where we already have a congregation (such as Sri Lanka), where the local community members are themselves directly invcolved in relief efforts as part of the community.

4)Does your religion participate in wide-spread charitable efforts on foreign soil?

Yes.

5)Is this charity (assuming it exist) carried out without the effort to proselytize?

No prosletyzation efforts are made, whatsoever, in any shape or form.

(I am assuming your qualifier about the charity existing is meant solely as a conditional and not as a snark).

6)What actions (if any)have misguided members of your faith taken to convert others or that would cause suffering to those who would not convert?

None.

7)How is your faith in your religion shaken by those misguided actions and what are the leaders of your faith saying about those actions?

Why would my faith be shaken? There are no misguided actions by misguided members, but if there were, those actions would be their responsibility and not therefore reflective of my faith in any way.

8)From the above answers, do you believe your religion demonstrates better behavior than the Christian faith?

"The Christian faith" ? Who is generalizing now? I do not presume to make value judgements between entire religions on the basis of the actions of their followers. If you choose to do so, that is your business. Nor am I interested in theological debates.

I encourage you to read Mullahs on the Mainframe by Jonah Blank if you are genuinely curious about my comunity and what we believe and represent, and how we have successfully met the challenge of modernity without sacrificing our principles of faith. You can read my review of the book here.

Joe Lawrence said...

First, note that "other religions do it too" is not a defense of immoral actions. I hold that withholding of aid contingent upon religious conversion is immoral.I agree with that.

I think I detect some defensiveness on your part regarding Christianity.I read Christian websites that are particularly critical of Christianity and it's various problems (it certainly has them). These sites rarely touch on problems with Islam, Judaism, Hinduism. Then there are "Christian" websites that tend to attack non-Christians. I just found many Bohra websites that are quite enthusiastically attacking Bohra fundamentalism with little mention of other religions. Your site appears to have more of an outward focus.

Regarding your religion and it's charitable efforts--I take you at your word (and of course you provided evidence) that it is nobly engaged in helping others. Obviously some of my questions were meant to point out (if applicable, and apparently it's not) that those who do little to help others should be reluctant to criticize those who are actively engaged in charity.

Many Bohras seem confident that the fundamentalist Bohra Priesthood regularly abuse and misuse funds that were contributed for charitable purposes. This is easy to verify with a google search and is surely something you are aware of.

(I am assuming your qualifier about the charity existing is meant solely as a conditional and not as a snark). Notice that I used the same sort of conditional when I asked about misguided actions. I was not assuming positive or negative attributes.

6)What actions (if any)have misguided members of your faith taken to convert others or that would cause suffering to those who would not convert?

None.
I checked to see if there was evidence to the contrary. The actual incidents may be rare (or not) but reports of Bohra violence and threats of violence against Bohra reformist are common. (Google: Bohra reformist violence) I suppose attacks on non-conformist are technically not the same as cruelty towards non-believers.

Finally, I want to acknowledge this. The problems I have pointed out were reported almost exclusively by Bohra reformists. I'm reluctant to harp on a groups flaws when they are most widely reported and actively addressed by members of that group. Self-examination and internal criticism are signs of moral/religious/political health. Focusing on the sins and flaws of the "enemy", as in the book 1984 or Hitler's Germany or some would say President Bush's Whitehouse is how religious and political activist cover their own flaws and convince rank and file folk to commit horrible acts against their fellow man.

I'll refrain from more long post on your site (for a while, at least) since I've provided no such site of my own where you can return the favor. Thanks for responding though. I learned a great deal from it.

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