Thursday, January 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.


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. "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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.