Evangelism angers Hindi tsunami victims
Posted February 8, 2005
By Mehul Srivastava
Dayton Daily News
As his 747 carrying tsunami relief supplies, doctors and volunteers from his charity arrived in southern India last month, evangelical Christian and Indian-born Dr. K.A. Paul announced, "Those who have survived the tsunami only did so because of the Great Lord Jesus Christ."
At least one local TV reporter turned off his camera and walked away.
Four days later, at a hospital in Sri Lanka where American doctors had just finished examining a sick child, another evangelical Christian who had flown in with Paul bent down on his knees to ask the sick child's mother to pray in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. The child and her mother were not Christians, and barely understood the man's English, but they prayed along anyway.
All across India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, anecdotal reports have surfaced of hard-line Christian evangelical groups using the tsunami to spread the word of Jesus. And all across the region, religious leaders have condemned the practice.
"They are like vultures, swooping in to take advantage of the injured," Swami R. Mutthiah, a Hindu priest working in South India in relief efforts said of evangelists who use the tsunami to proselytize. "These people, they make it appear that the aid is easier to get if you convert."
In Indonesia, a Muslim cleric who heads an influential group of clerics known as the council of Ulemas warned Christian aid groups to be careful about mixing aid with evangelism.
"This is a reminder: Do not do this in this kind of situation," said Diem Syamsuddin, according to comments reported by local newspapers and the Associated Press. "The Muslim community will not remain quiet."
Syamsuddin was responding to an aid group's attempts to take 300 Muslim orphans and raise them in a Christian children's home. The charity had planned to move the orphans from the Aceh province in Indonesia to a location near Djakarta.
Most Christian charities - including the largest, Catholic Relief Services - say that they do not attempt conversions, or mix aid with religion. Aid from other agencies, such as the UN and the International Red Cross, is given without any mention of religion, although the groups take the recipients' religion into consideration to keep the aid culturally nonoffensive - like sending vegetarian food supplies to India, and pork-free food supplies to Indonesia.
In India, most of the survivors of the tsunami are Hindus, and they believe in a polytheistic system of Gods. For centuries, they have co-existed peacefully with a vibrant but minority Christian population in South India that traces its lineage back to the French, Portugese, Dutch and British influence on the country. While most Indians accept the Christian minority as an integral part of the country - Christmas, for instance, is a national holiday - they frown upon the idea of conversions.
Attempts at converting Indians have brought a negative, and even violent, response in this part of the world. In 1999, Australian missionary Graham Steines and his sons were killed in India by an angry mob that accused them of attempting to convert Hindus (Indians also frowned upon the killing of Steines - his widow received the Padma Bhushan this week, India's highest civilian honor). Last week, when American televangelist Benny Hinn held a "Festival of Blessings" in Bangalore, opposition parties held up proceedings in the state's General Assembly for two days, protesting the government's complicity in an event aimed to convert.
Most of the reports of proselytising are scattered and, for the most part, consist of small-aid groups sent by churches in the United States that say their aim is to aid, not to convert. But some of their Web sites are transparently evangelical.
"We'll trust that God will turn the hearts of people in this situation, make it softer, so that they will believe and accept the Gospel as well as the truth of the word of God." the Rev. James Kanaganayagam says on a Web site for Back to the Bible, an American group that is attempting to raise nearly $500,000 to send to Sri Lanka.
Paul makes no apologies for his Christian message. In a lengthy profile in the Houston Chronicle last week, Paul said he considers saving the souls of people a calling from God.
"God called us to be peacemakers," he said. "Blessed are the peacemakers, not peace-wanters, not peace-lovers."
But Paul's arrival in India brought immediate controversy. On Jan. 7, the day after his plane landed in Chennai, the Indian Express carried a scathing column mocking him for bragging about his airplane and using the tsunami as an opportunity to proselytize. Paul had on several occasions reminded journalists and visitors that "other than George W. Bush, I am the only man in the world to have his own 747."
"Poor Jesus Christ. He never boasted and he only had a mule for transport," said TJS George, the writer who wrote the column in the Express, a national newspaper. "With airborne pretenders as friends, Jesus Christ needs no enemies."
That same day, Paul was a few hours south of Chennai, leading a large crowd in prayer for the victims of the tsunami. The crowd had gathered, officials there said in interviews, because they had been told that aid would be distributed.
Leo Aguilar, the evangelical who led the sick child's mother in prayer at the hospital in Sri Lanka, said the tsunami is an opportunity to preach the Bible.
"It's part of the prophecies, that the great floods will come, and they will herald the return of Christ," he said. "This is a wake-up call to all these American churches."