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June 7, 2003
Column #1,136

How Should Christian Aid Be Given in Muslim Nations?

     "What is the role of Christian missionaries in Muslim nations?" asked Melissa Rogers, Director of a Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life in Washington this week. Some Christian groups, such as Catholic Relief and World Vision, simply offer humanitarian help. Others, such as Samaritan's Purse run by Franklin Graham, provide help as an avenue to share their faith.

     "Which is the more appropriate strategy? How do Muslims perceive Christian missionaries?" she asked.

     Bruce Wilkinson, who oversees $400 million of World Vision's aid to suffering people around the world, and worked abroad for 17 years, mostly in Muslim countries, replied, "The controversy is not an issue for Iraqis. Suffering people welcome aid from all sources, if delivered in a dignified manner."

     He says Muslims and Christians who "share a belief in God and an opposition to those secularizing society." Wilkinson described a remarkable consensus of Christians and Muslims who agree that, "Charity is a God-centered work. Those who give feel a solidarity with the poor. Charity is a religious obligation and is a witness of the faith of a believer, obeying God."

     Dr. Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, is a Muslim who attended missionary schools in Tanzania. From that perspective, he said "Christian missionaries are unfortunately connected with colonial powers." Iraq is the latest example, in which U.S. occupation preceded any giving by Christians. "We need the humanitarian aid, and are very appreciative of Christian churches' giving which is based on loving their neighbor as themselves. But there is a suspicion of what is behind the humanitarian aid.

     "We are aware of what evangelical leaders are saying about the Qur'an, and their hatred of Islam, is perceived, like the occupation of Iraq, as being anti-Muslim. The U.S. is seen as a Christian power. There is a suspicion the missionaries are enemies of Islam because they are seen insulting the prophet, and as trying to win souls over."

     By contrast, Kathleen Moynihan of Catholic Relief, who was in Baghdad on Monday, said the Catholic position was "Deed, not creed. We do not proselytize. The dramatic challenge we face is when there is a lack of water, a lack of food, a lack of understanding."

     She gently noted that contrary to Sachedina's assertion that Christian help follows government colonialization, that Catholic Relief has been working in Iraq for five years.

     Fiinally, Dr. Michaal Lawrence, a Baptist pastor, argued that "The fears of missionaries, the charge of coercion, of not respecting other people's religious sensibilities is unfounded. The very nature of conversion is that it happens in the interior of the man or woman. We have good news, but it is up to the individual to decide what to do with it. Neither secular government nor religious authority can buy the conscience of a man or a woman." He hoped the U.S. government would champion religious liberty in Iraq.

     That prompted Sachedina to assert that Iraq "has a long tradition of pluralism, which allowed different brands of Christianity to thrive." He resisted the idea that government should "support any specific religious denomination."

     Lawrence countered that while the Chaldean Church has a 2,000 year history, "if a Muslim sets foot in one of their churches, he takes his life into his hands. He does not have the freedom to convert to Christianity."

     Interestingly, Sachedina was critical of Muslim treatment of women, which he said was not based on the Qur'an, but on a "male dominated culture that does not see women as partners."

     I asked the speakers what their reaction was to Franklin Graham's assertion that Islam is a "very evil and wicked religion."

     Lawrence labeled his remarks "culturally insensitive," which prevented his achieving "his goal of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ." Wilkinson went further, "His insensitivity was grievous. We are trying to build relationships. These relationships demand respect."

     Sachedina, who speaks 11 languages, asserted that Muslims are "extremely sensitive about what Americans say about their religion or their prophet. This gives Christianity a bad image, and is not the way to convert people. It has to begin with mutual respect.

     "I love Jesus. I read the New Testament for inspiration." By contrast, "Mohammad has been ill-treated throughout Christian history. There are many books about Jesus by Muslims." Graham's remarks "hurt me deeply. It was shocking to put it mildly."

     This is the kind of dialogue Christians and Muslims need to have with one another.

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