Samaritans Purse to Baghdad

The Reverend Franklin Graham, son of the Reverend Billy Graham, sparked controversy following the September 11 terrorist attacks by characterizing Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" during an interview with NBC. In a later Wall Street Journal column Graham sought to clarify his comments, saying he was not contending that Muslims "are evil people because of their faith. But I decry the evil that has been done in the name of Islam, or any other faith-including Christianity." He added that "the persecution or elimination of non-Muslims has been a cornerstone of Islam conquests and rule for centuries." In an interview with Paula Zahn on CNN, Graham said he does not believe Muslims are evil people, despite his disagreements with them. He said, "I'm not a Muslim. I don't believe in Islam. And I have a lot of concerns and a lot of questions about their faith We're not fighting Islam. There are many wonderful Muslim people. I know them, I work with them, and I respect them. I just disagree."

Graham heads a Christian relief agency called Samaritan's Purse. On March 25, 2003, Samaritan's Purse and the Southern Baptist Convention said they had workers in Jordan near the Iraqi border who were prepared to enter Iraq to provide food, shelter, and other needs to Iraqis following the second Iraqi war. Samaritan's Purse said it could provide drinking water for 20,000 people, household packages for 5,000 families, general medical kits to serve 100,000 people for three months, and materials to build temporary shelters for 4,000 families. Graham said, "As Christians, we love the Iraqi people, and we are poised and ready to help meet their needs. Our prayers are with the innocent families of Iraq, just as they are with our brave soldiers and leaders."

When asked whether they would do any evangelizing while performing their relief work, Ken Isaacs of Samaritan's said, "We do not deny the name of Christ. We believe in sharing Him in deed and in word. We'll be who we are." Isaacs added, "Compassion and service is a vital expression of Christianity. We don't have an evangelism strategy. We don't have a strategy to share our faith We don't have Bibles waiting in the wings, or Christian literature waiting in the wings."

Mark Kelly, of the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board, also refused to deny there might be a spiritual component accompanying the aid, but indicated the primary focus would be relief. "Conversations about spiritual things will come about as people ask about our faith," said Kelly. "It's not going to be like what you might see in other countries where there's a preaching service outside clinics and things like that." Graham reinforced this idea, saying, "We will offer relief to those who need it, with no strings attached. Sometimes, the best preaching we can do is simply being there with a cup of cold water, exhibiting Christ's spirit of serving others."

Voices in the mainstream media condemned the proposed relief effort, and one journalist even suggested it was "immoral." The Washington Post called for the Pentagon to rescind its approval for Samaritan's Purse to operate in Iraq. Steven Waldman, writing in Slate.com, urged the Bush administration to use its influence to discourage Graham, apparently having no problem here with the intermingling of church and state. "I'm not sure any of this means that America's foreign policy objectives are served by having a Bush-loving, Islam-bashing, Muslim-converting Christian icon on the ground in Iraq tending to the bodies and souls of the grateful but deeply suspicious Muslim population. Or, to put it more simply, the idea is absolutely loopy. The idea that the U.S. government is powerless to do anything about Samaritan's Purse seems odd. We can obliterate another nation's army in a few weeks, but when it comes to reining in a disruptive charity, well, our hands are tied?" Waldman dismissed the argument that the government shouldn't tell private relief agencies what to do. "In fact," said Waldman, "religious liberty does not trump all concerns. Among the concerns it does not trump is the ... desire not to have the entire Muslim world wanting to wage war against America. And make no mistake: Franklin Graham's mission to Iraq will help convince the Arab world that America is out to convert Muslims to Christianity. What Graham is doing probably isn't illegal; it's merely immoral."

There is a legitimate concern that relations between America and the Iraqi people and the Muslim world could be strained by the strong presence of Franklin Graham's organization in the relief effort. But in our culture today, it is all too easy to assume the worst of wellmeaning Christians and to attack their motives with impunity. No one would dare attack the motives of those of other faiths without incurring the wrath of the guardians of political correctness. And few dare to criticize those of other religions when they attack Christians. When Mas'ood Cajee, of the National Council of Fellowship of Reconciliation, called Graham "a spiritual carpetbagger and war profiteer who trades in souls," nary a word of criticism was to be heard. No one challenged Cajee's commitment to diversity, sensitivity, and tolerance when he wrote, "Like the despised Carpetbaggers of yore, Graham plans to exploit the humanitarian crisis for his own calculating gain, by subjecting vulnerable Iraqis to his Faustian Christ-forfood program."

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