Don't use aid to proselytize, Christians urged
As relief finally arrives in places devastated by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and Mississippi, Christians have been reminded that they should not use aid as a cynical tool for winning vulnerable people over to their religious convictions.
Tom Palakudiyil, who has run the international agency Christian Aid's response to several emergencies in Asia, says in Third Sector magazine - a journal for charity professionals - that using humanitarian assistance as a lever for proselytism is 'morally questionable'.
He goes on to express concern that some aid agencies in different parts of the world are 'using religion as a tool to gain an advantage over others', declaring the tactic 'a caricature of the message of Jesus'.
'Proselytizing groups rush in to virtually every modern disaster zone,' declares Palakudiyil, writing before the Hurricane Katrina disaster struck in the largely Christian southern states of the USA.
He explains: 'I witnessed Christian organisations include Bible tracts with the relief distributed to cyclone victims in Orissa in 1999, and other groups trying to convince communities traumatized by the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 that Jesus is ëthe way, the truth and the life'.'
When Tom Palakudiyil was in Asia in the aftermath of the tsunami on 26 December 2004, he says he saw a 'Jesus saves' banner on the road to a relief camp, even though most of the people being helped were Hindu.
In January 2005, some missionaries were accused of exploiting tsunami victims in the sensitive Indonesian province of Aceh.
Concern was also expressed at the use of Christian tracts telling people to 'prepare for death'. He group that produced these has come up with a similar leaflet for use in areas impacted by Hurricane Katrina.
In religiously plural or non-Christian areas, Mr Palakudiyil says that 'an aggressive display of a group's commitment to Christianity flagrantly disregards people's own strongly held personal beliefs and risks exploiting people in a crisis'.
Insensitive proselytism also goes against what Jesus himself would have wanted, adds the aid worker. But he stresses that faith can be a great help to people facing trauma, and that there are appropriate ways in which this can be expressed.
Palakudiyil cites as a much better example a project run by Christian Aid partners in Rajasthan, in India. Flags of the women's groups that had organized the meeting were flying, rather than Christian Aid's.
Commented Mr Palakudiyil: 'This was not a sign of a marketing failure, but of the success of our partners and of our commitment to humanitarian principles.'
The World Council of Churches and mission bodies across the theological spectrum have worked together in recent years to try to distinguish between legitimate proclamation of a Christian message and exploitative proselytism.
The issue has been especially sensitive in parts of the two-thirds world, where evangelistic groups backed by US dollars operate in situations where local people have little money or power to resist.
In 1997 the World Council of Churches produced a statement entitled Towards Common Witness, which names proselytism as a destructive ëcounter-witness' to Jesus Christ. It calls on churches and mission agencies to renounce manipulative forms of proclamation, and to adopt responsible relationships in mission.
Christian Aid is the official relief, development and advocacy agency of some 40 Christian denominations is Britain and Ireland.