October 8, 2009
It is a centuries-old debate, dating back at least to the 16th century when the Jesuits and Franciscans argued over the best means for religious groups to provide humanitarian aid. One side wants to turn a blind eye to the indigenous religions while the other seeks to take advantage of the crisis to spread its message, typically the Christian Gospel message of Jesus Christ.
Christian relief agencies are now faced with this longstanding debate as they attempt to help victims impacted by two massive earthquakes that crushed western Indonesia last week.
Humanitarian groups such World Vision, Samaritan's Purse, Open Doors and World Help all have teams on the ground in the aftermath of the earthquakes, which measured 7.6 and 6.6 magnitude. World Help, a Christian relief agency headquartered in Forest, Virginia, reports that more than 700 were killed in Indonesia. More than one thousand people are still missing.
As the death toll continues to rise, Christian relief agencies face steep challenges as they try to meet the demands of several natural disasters throughout Indonesia. One of these challenges is balancing faithfulness to the Great Commission and humanitarian aid.
In 2004, the largest tsunami in history tore through the Indian Ocean, killing tens of thousands in its path. Christian groups and private relief organizations sprang into action, but then were asked to cease their work in the ravaged Indonesian province of Aceh. Government officials accused some relief groups like Samaritan's Purse of targeting Muslims for conversion.
Still, the recent disasters in Indonesia have opened the nation to accept at least aid from Christians and Christian nations, and perhaps an opportunity for sharing the Gospel of Christ.
Relief agency executives, however, say a balance is necessary when working in areas that may impose religious restrictions.
"It isn't necessarily helpful when a ministry spokesperson gets on television and spouts off about the Gospel," said Rusty Goodwin, Director of Communication for World Help. "Sometimes you have to work in stealth mode and be sensitive to the culture - to achieve long term success."
This "stealth mode" strategy could have come from lessons learned during the 2005 tsunami when World Help sought to adopt some 300 Muslim tsunami orphans. That plan was apparently abandoned due to strong opposition and influence from the Islamic government.
Since 1991, World Help has served over 60 countries through its four pillars of ministry: child advocacy, humanitarian aid, bible distribution, and church planting.
"We have partners throughout the world," said Humanitarian Aid Director of World Help, Jesse West. "We support our partners with finances and relief aid. The need is more urgent during a disaster."
Indonesia has the largest population of Muslims in the world. Christians make up about eight percent of Indonesia's population of 230 million.
The country generally regards a moderate variant of Islam, but has seen an increase of more radical Islamist entities in recent years. Recently Christians have expressed concern over new sharia-based laws passed in the Aceh province of Indonesia. For instance, the law now allows stoning to death for women caught in adultery.
According to Agence-French Press (AFP), the law, passed by lawmakers in the northern region of Sumatra Island, also allows punishments of up to 400 lashes for child rape, 100 lashes for homosexual acts and 60 lashes for gambling.
At times, the country's Christian minority has also found its religious freedom curtailed by the government, according to Compass Direct News. Just before the most recent earthquakes, Islamic organizations pressured officials to close a house church where Christians met, while other government measures have prevented the congregation from building a separate church.
It's no wonder Christian relief organizations are cautious in their approach. Strict conversion laws are a growing trend of religious intolerance which can threaten disaster relief efforts in South Asia.
When governments such as the Sri Lankan Parliament introduce bills that would silence religious expression and criminalize conversions, new strategies are warranted. The bill, which was introduced in April, would subject faith-based aid providers to up to seven years in prison if accused of "attempted conversion" for aiding the needy while retaining their religious identities. The bill would subject those who rushed to help after disasters like the Indian Ocean tsunami to the same penalties.
Christians in Sri Lanka say elements of the bill allow vast leeway in interpretation and could result in the criminalization of most Christian activity aimed at helping the poor.
Gospel for Asia missionaries work throughout Sri Lanka. They minister to people whose lives have been battered by a 26-year-old civil war and numerous natural catastrophes, including floods and a tsunami. Daniel Punnose, Vice President of Gospel for Asia, says while they have no confirmed reports of religious restrictions in parts of India where they are providing relief efforts, Christian humanitarian aid often brings a change of heart.
"Any time we do relief work and people receive help - they sometimes chose to follow Christ," said Punnose. "It does stir up persecution. It is mostly out of fear because they don't understand. But the Lord promised that persecution would come as part of the price of preaching the Gospel."
Ignacio Leon, the head of the U.N.'s humanitarian agency in Indonesia, told The Associated Press that the focus has now shifted away from finding survivors in Indonesia and "we are supporting the government now more in the relief side."
Russ Jones is co-publisher of the award winning Christian Press newspaper (ChristianPress.com) and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter and freelance reporter for CBN he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. He is also president of the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers and member of the Evangelical Press Association. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.