Tsunami survivors decry aid groups' proselytizing effort
Local leaders fear violent backlash against Christians
Dita Alangkara, Associated Press
MORAKETIYA, Sri Lanka A dozen Americans walked into a relief camp here, showering bereft parents and traumatized children with gifts, attention and affection. They also quietly offered camp residents something else: Jesus.
The Americans, all of them from one church in Texas, have staged plays detailing the life of Jesus and had children draw pictures of him, camp residents said. They have told parents who lost children that they should still believe in God and held group prayers where they tried to heal a partly paralyzed man and a deaf 12-year-old girl.
The attempts at proselytizing are angering local Christian leaders, who worry that they could provoke a violent backlash against Christians in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country that is already a religious tinderbox.
Last year, Buddhist hard-liners attacked more than 100 churches and the offices of the World Vision Christian aid group, accusing them of using money and social programs to coerce conversions.
Most American aid groups, including those affiliated with religious organizations, strictly avoid mixing aid with missionary work. But scattered reports of proselytizing in Sri Lanka; Indonesia, which is predominantly Muslim; and India, with large Hindu and Muslim populations, are arousing concerns that the goodwill spread by the American relief efforts could be undermined by resentment over missionary work.
The Rev. Sarangika Fernando, a local Methodist minister, witnessed one of the prayer sessions in Sri Lanka and accused the Americans of exploiting traumatized people. "They said, 'In the name of Jesus, she must be cured!' As a priest, I was really upset."
The Americans in Sri Lanka belong to the Antioch Community Church, an evangelical congregation based in Waco, Texas. The church is one of a growing number of evangelical groups that believe in mixing humanitarian aid with discussions of religion, an approach that older, more established Christian aid groups like Catholic Relief Services call unethical.
Sri Lankan refugees, camp administrators and church officials said the Americans have identified themselves only as a humanitarian aid group. In an interview on Wednesday here, Pat Murphy, 49, a leader of the team, said the group is nongovernmental organization, or NGO, and not a church group.
"It's an NGO," Murphy said. "Just your plain vanilla NGO that does aid work."
But the church's Web site says the Americans are one of four teams dispatched to Sri Lanka and Indonesia who have convinced dozens of people to "come to Christ."
Camp organizers here said they believe the group is trying to convert people, but do not want to further upset the tsunami victims by cutting off the aid.
W.L.P. Wilson, 38, a disabled fisherman, said he allowed the Americans to pray three times for the healing of his paralyzed lower leg because he is desperate to provide for his wife and three children again. Wilson, a Buddhist, said he believes the Americans are trying to convert him to Christianity but he is in "a helpless situation now" and needs aid.
"They told me to always think about God and about Jesus and you will be healed," he said. "Whenever I ask for help they always mention God, but they do not give any money for treatment."
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