A Virginia-based missionary group said this week that it has airlifted 300 "tsunami orphans" from the Muslim province of Banda Aceh to Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, where it plans to raise them in a Christian children's home.
The missionary group, WorldHelp, is one of dozens of Christian, Muslim and Jewish charities providing humanitarian relief to victims of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that devastated countries around the Indian Ocean, taking more than 150,000 lives.
Most of the religious charities do not attach any conditions to their aid, and many of the larger ones -- such as WorldVision, Catholic Relief Services and Church World Service -- have policies against proselytizing. But a few of the smaller groups have been raising money among evangelical Christians by presenting the tsunami emergency effort as a rare opportunity to make converts in hard-to-reach areas.
"Normally, Banda Aceh is closed to foreigners and closed to the gospel. But, because of this catastrophe, our partners there are earning the right to be heard and providing entrance for the gospel," WorldHelp said in an appeal for funds on its Web site this week.
The appeal said WorldHelp was working with native-born Christians in Indonesia who want to "plant Christian principles as early as possible" in the 300 Muslim children, all younger than 12, who lost their parents in the tsunami.
"These children are homeless, destitute, traumatized, orphaned, with nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. If we can place them in a Christian children's home, their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people," it said.
The Web site was changed, and the appeal was removed yesterday after The Washington Post called to inquire about it. The Rev. Vernon Brewer, president of WorldHelp in Forest, Va., said in a telephone interview that his organization had collected about $70,000 in donations and was seeking to raise an additional $350,000 to build the Christian orphanage.
Brewer said the Indonesian government gave permission for the orphans to be flown to Jakarta last week and was aware that they would be raised as Christians.
'Unclaimed or unwanted'
"These are children who are unclaimed or unwanted. We are not trying to rip them apart from any existing family members and change their culture and change their customs," he said. "These children are going to be raised in a Christian environment. That's no guarantee they will choose to be Christians."
Brewer, a Baptist minister, was the first person to graduate from the Rev. Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., in 1971. He served as a vice president of the Christian university before founding WorldHelp in 1991. It has since grown to 100 full-time employees in the United States and helps to support indigenous Christian missionaries in about 50 countries, he said.
Brewer said WorldHelp is an independent organization but has a friendly, informal relationship with nearby Liberty University, which held a fundraiser at a basketball game Monday night to benefit WorldHelp's tsunami relief projects.
"I think Vernon [Brewer] has got the right approach," Falwell said yesterday. "If Christian ministries can earn the right to be heard -- you don't preach the gospel to a hungry man, you feed him, then if he wants to hear something you've got to say, that's nice, but it's not required."
WorldHelp's primary partners in Indonesia, Brewer said, are Henry and Roy Lanting, a father-son team who run an orphanage and school near Jakarta. Roy Lanting is also a graduate of Liberty University, Brewer said. Efforts to reach the Lantings by telephone and e-mail yesterday were unsuccessful.
'No ulterior motive here'
"First and foremost, our intention is not to evangelize but to show the love of Jesus Christ through our acts of compassion," Brewer said. "We are not using this open window of disaster to move in and set up a beachhead for evangelism. That's not the spirit of what we're trying to accomplish. . . . We just want to show the genuineness of our faith. We have no ulterior motive here."
The Rev. Arthur B. Keys Jr., president of Arlington-based International Relief and Development, a non-religious aid group that has a U.S. government contract to rebuild the water and sanitation system in Banda Aceh, said he feared overt evangelizing could produce a backlash. "I think there's a danger that all international groups could be tarnished by this," said Keys, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. "I think we have to go out of our way to assure people that we're there to help, period."
One missionary support group, Advancing Native Missions based in Charlottesville, said it has raised more than $100,000 to pay for distribution of food, water and cooking utensils in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and South India. Its workers often hand out Bibles or other religious tracts along with emergency supplies because disaster victims naturally question the existence of God, spokesman Oliver Asher said.
"It's easy to be an atheist when you have no crisis in your life. But have a 50-foot tidal wave sweep your family and village away, it makes you ponder the big questions in life," he said.
Operation Mobilization USA, based in Tyrone, Ga., has raised about $60,000 to address "both the physical and the spiritual needs" of tsunami victims, according to its vice president for resource development, Douglas R. Barclay.
'Demonstrate God's love'
He said Operation Mobilization, founded in 1957, supports about 3,700 missionaries in 110 countries and moved quickly to provide water, food and medical supplies after the tsunami hit. "In these situations, we're not going to go out and blatantly preach to them, we're just going to demonstrate God's love by addressing their physical needs and sharing our beliefs one on one," he said.
One of the largest and best-known evangelical Christian relief groups is Samaritan's Purse of Boone, N.C., which is headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham. It sparked international controversy by openly mixing evangelization with its relief work after Hurricane Mitch in Central America in 1998 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq last year. But it has made great efforts to be "sensitive to local concerns" in areas hit by the tsunami, Franklin Graham said.
"It would be inappropriate for us to go in and try to take advantage of these people's tragedy to evangelize," he said.