BANDA ACEH, Indonesia — A year after a massive tsunami devastated this city, killing tens of thousands, American Christian relief organizations find themselves embroiled in an increasingly explosive debate over whether they are here to help or are using aid as a tool to convert Muslims, a crime in this, the most populous Muslim nation in the world.
Fueling the controversy is the role of the U.S. government, which provides money for at least one of the major Christian relief organizations, Samaritan’s Purse, whose mission is to win converts to Christianity.
Jackie Blevins, a relief worker here with the North Carolina-based Samaritan’s Purse, said “Everybody’s here for the same reasons – humanitarian reasons. The faith-based are using that to get in the door.”
Samaritan’s Purse concedes as much in a mission statement:
“We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ.”
Such an approach makes a challenging job more difficult for faith-based relief groups already under scrutiny from the Indonesian government and radical Muslims. The fact that Samaritan’s receives U.S. government funding compounds the problem.
In Indonesia, which has become a haven for fundamentalist terrorist groups, Christian relief workers have drawn criticism from both Indonesian Muslims and separation of church and state advocates in the United States. They argue that what these workers are doing is counterproductive to effective diplomacy in the Muslim world, especially when the U.S. government is funding a group whose mission is to convert people to Christianity.
Samaritan’s Purse receives more than $7 million a year from the federal government, according to tax records from 2003 and 2004. This year, they’ve received $3 million from the government.
The money Samaritan’s received from the U.S. Agency of International Development is intended for projects in countries other than Indonesia, but critics argue that government funding of any Samaritan’s project gives them a government endorsement for all projects, including efforts to evangelize.
One Samaritan’s worker, a preacher from Georgia, said he will stay after reconstruction in Aceh to convert Muslims to Christianity. He asked to remain anonymous, noting that if conversions did occur in the town in which he’s working, his safety would be jeopardized.
“It lends credence to the argument that the ultimate goal is the Christianization of Muslim and Arab countries,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “It’s impossible not to view it that way.”
Complicating matters is the role of Ken Isaacs, U.S. AID’s former director of foreign disaster assistance. Before taking on the AID post, Isaacs worked for Samaritan’s Purse for more than a decade. In November, he resigned from AID, and said he will begin working again for Samaritan’s on Dec. 30.
Isaacs said that his relations with both groups did not constitute any conflict of interest, and that while working for AID, he recused himself from all votes concerning Samaritan’s.
Ivan Giesbrecht, a Samaritan’s spokesman, said there are no long-term plans of evangelism in Aceh and that relief work there comes with no strings attached.
“Our contracts with U.S. AID are completely done apart from our formal or traditional evangelism projects,” he said. “When we offer assistance, it’s often perceived as ideological or a hidden agenda. I don’t think that’s going to improve, but I don’t think it should stop us from engaging.”
Opposition to Christians
Many Muslims in Indonesia have called for the removal of American faith-based groups in spite of the groups’ efforts to help rebuild the area.
Hilmy Bakar Almascaty, a high-ranking member of the Jakarta-based Islamic Defenders Front, described attempts to Christianize Acehnese Muslims as extremely dangerous and said such activity, if unchecked, eventually would lead to violence.
“If they build churches in Aceh, they’ll introduce war,” he said. “If we see that, we will cut their throats.”
The Islamic Defenders Front is known to most Indonesians by its acronym FPI and has become notorious for its grisly, machete-wielding raids on bars and discos during Ramadan. Now, some of its members have settled in Aceh to monitor Christian relief groups.
Aceh is a particularly sensitive topic in Indonesia. Islam on the archipelago first took root in Aceh in the 8th century, giving it the nickname, the veranda of Mecca. It’s governed under strict sharia law and is regarded by many Indonesians as home to the country’s purest form of Islam.
For nearly three decades, separatists have fought for independence from the Indonesian government, effectively closing Aceh’s borders to foreigners and most other Indonesians.
Last December’s devastating tsunami changed that, bringing with it scores of foreign relief workers, who in turn brought modernism, Christianity and Western values. For some, this has been a breath of fresh air. Other Muslims regard it as a cultural invasion.
Bukhari Nur has mixed feelings about the work American Christians are doing near his home. On one hand, they helped rebuild his brick factory. On the other, they’ve introduced what he sees as a dangerous element to his village, Klieng Cot Arun, just outside of Banda Aceh.
Kreasi Social, a group of Indonesian and American Christians based in a mansion not far from Nur’s village, has provided loans to rebuild some of what was destroyed there, but they’ve also distributed Christian pamphlets.
“I’m sure they’re trying to convert people,” he said. “They’re not asking the people, ‘Please convert to Christianity,’ but they’re doing something to provoke them with their words. What people don’t like is when they’re giving aid, they’re talking about religion. If you want to help, don’t say anything about religion.”
Annisa, who like many Indonesians uses one name, lives across the road from Nur in the village of Lambada Lhok. She asked Kreasi members who were teaching her sewing not to return after they distributed religious pamphlets there. She still worries what her fellow villagers thought of her association with them.
“I’m afraid people will think I converted,” she said.
Kreasi members did not respond to several requests for interviews.
The organization charged with monitoring faith-based groups in Aceh, the Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Agency (BRR), has received criticism for not enforcing laws on proselytizing because it would mean the expulsion of Western groups with deep pockets. Fuad Mardhatillah, BRR’s deputy of cultural, religious, and social issues, receives complaints of evangelism in abundance, but said there is no hard evidence it’s going on.
“We don’t have any proof that this is going on in the field,” he said. In fact, he said he believes radical Muslims are exaggerating the issue for their own political ends.
“They’re afraid that by giving freedom, people will be led astray,” he said.
Most Samaritan’s Purse members working in Aceh have maintained they are not proselytizing to natives. Almost without fail, they say that instead they’re “showing the love of Jesus” to the Acehnese through building homes and supplying clean water.
Some concede, though, that conversion from Islam to Christianity is the end goal. Mamat Matius joined Samaritan’s Purse to help tsunami victims and is now working with Muslims to build homes in a village just outside of Banda Aceh. He came from Bandung on Java island and considers himself an evangelist.
“We are here to plow the land,” he said. “It’s not like you’re sowing right away. We show them little by little.”
The problem for Muslims living under sharia law, especially those whose homes are in remote villages, is that conversion can lead to being ostracized.
Under traditional Muslim law, conversion from Islam to any other faith is considered apostasy and is punishable by death. Nowadays, this is rare, but even rumors of conversion can be socially devastating.
Indonesian Christians also worry how the efforts of faith-based American groups will affect them. Samaritan’s Purse is a prime source of anxiety.
Franklin Graham, the leader of Samaritan’s Purse and the son of evangelist Billy Graham, told reporters “Islam is evil” after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. And though Samaritan’s workers deny it, the group’s mission statement hints at the quid pro quo expected through relief work.
Many Muslims and native Christians don’t want to hear this message. And experts predict that evidence of evangelism and any U.S. government connection with it will only lend credibility to the claims of Muslim radicals, who are vocal and often violent.
Sidney Jones, a regional director of the International Crisis Group and an authority on terrorism in Indonesia, described the issue of Muslims converting to Christianity as one of the most explosive in Indonesia today.
“It would give a huge amount of propaganda to some of these radical groups,” she said, referring to proof of evangelism. “It fits into the worldview that this is a Christian-Zionist conspiracy to destroy Islam.”
Christian relief workers don’t see it that way. They build houses and provide food and water to Muslims devastated by the tsunami. Some proselytize and others are careful not to.
Indonesian Christians have applauded efforts at humanitarian assistance in Aceh, but many view missionary work as problematic.
Gustav Dupe is on the advisory board of one of Indonesia’s Christian political parties, Partai Damai Sejahtera (the Peace and Prosperous Party). He views American attempts at Kristenisasi – literally Christianization in English – as misguided and dangerous for Indonesian Christians, who often feel like second-class citizens because they’re minorities.
“It’s a stupid action. The U.S. government and Bush are against Muslim fundamentalists. The Christians in Aceh are a form of Christian fundamentalists. I oppose them,” he said. “Those who are counterproductive, we have to say, ‘Please we don’t need you.’ We have to say, ‘Please, go back to your country, or please, find another field for your mission.'”