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Ebola Epidemic Poses Dilemma for Church and Aid Groups

Missionaries and other aid workers wonder: Should they leave West Africa or go there to help battle a virus that has killed hundreds.

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa is posing a dilemma for some of the people most directly in harm's way: religious and other volunteer groups, whose members are on the front lines of the relief effort.

Their question: whether to leave West Africa out of caution — or to go there to help battle the spread of the virus, which so far has killed more than 700 people.

Dr. Kent Brantly, a physician working for the evangelical relief organization Samaritan's Purse, was flown back to the U.S. for treatment at a special Centers for Disease Control and Prevention facility in Atlanta after having contracted the virus in Liberia. Nancy Writebol, a nurse's assistant with an affiliated group SIM, who also contracted the disease, is expected to arrive at the same facility early next week.

Samaritan's Purse and SIM are pulling about 60 "nonessential" personnel out of Liberia. While the policy could change, the groups aren't withdrawing front-line doctors and critical staff, said Ken Isaacs, vice president of programs for Samaritan's Purse, which is based in Boone, North Carolina.

"We have doctors, we have nurses there. We have staff there who have Ebola," Isaacs told NBC station WCNC of Charlotte. "We are not leaving them. We are not evacuating.

"We are curtailing our operations so we can be effective and appropriate for what is going on right now," he said. "And right now, in Liberia, there is a lot of instability and insecurity and a lot of fear."

The Rev. Emmanuel Boakye-Jiadom, pastor of Ghana Mission United Methodist Church in Charlotte, told WCNC that one of his parishioners just signed up for his fourth mission to Africa despite the outbreak.

"As long as we're being directed by God to go to areas where this is a need, I believe that as long as there's a protocol, there's no sense of fear," Boakye-Jiadom said.

Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian service of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, also has no plans to leave.

"We are not leaving them. We are not evacuating."

Michael Stulman, a spokesman for the relief agency, told Catholic News Service that the agency has been "on the front lines" in Sierra Leone for a half-century and wouldn't be leaving its local partners on their own.

"We're sticking around," Stulman said.

Likewise, the Assemblies of God, the nation's largest Pentecostal denomination, said it was proceeding with plans to send a group that includes 14 students to Africa this weekend.

But other church and aid groups are responding in different ways.

The Peace Corps this week said it was "temporarily removing" 340 volunteers working in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — a decision that disappointed some of them.

"To a lot of people, it's scary to think that they might not be able to finish what they started," a volunteer working in Guinea told NBC News.

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One of the largest missionary denominations in the U.S., the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — the Mormons — said Friday that it was transferring and reassigning all 274 of its missionaries out of Sierra Leone and Liberia.

"This is a very challenging situation for the missionaries, members and citizens of these countries, and like other organizations, we are taking every practical step to reduce risk," the church said in a statement.

"Right now, I don't see us going back there."

Alize Binns, who's gone on several medical missions to Africa for the Medical Missionary Movement International chapter in Huntsville, Alabama, said she and other missionaries were deeply concerned for their colleagues in the affected countries.

"Right now, I don't see us going back there," Binns told NBC station WAFF of Huntsville.

Meanwhile, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is taking a wait-and-see approach.

The church's International Mission Board said Friday that there were "no plans at this time" to ask missionaries to leave Guinea and Liberia. It said it had no personnel in Sierra Leone.

"IMB personnel continue to monitor the Ebola epidemic," the board said. "Our medical coordinators in West Africa have been in touch with Southern Baptist missionaries in the region to keep them informed of the changing situation."