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Pew Forum panel: Christians should be sensitive in their witness to Muslims

WASHINGTON (BP)–Christians should be “extremely sensitive” to the Islamic culture but should not refrain from communicating their faith while providing humanitarian aid in Iraq, a Southern Baptist pastor said at a recent forum on the subject.

The United States government should even promote the right of Christian ministries to provide such assistance in Iraq and other countries, said Michael Lawrence, associate pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington.

Lawrence joined officials of two religiously based relief organizations and a specialist in Islamic studies in a panel discussion about the role of Christian aid organizations in post-war Iraq. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life sponsored the June 4 discussion.

As the United States-led military campaign in Iraq neared its conclusion this spring, some American critics questioned the appropriateness of relief work in post-war Iraq by Christian organizations that also evangelize. Iraq’s people are about 97 percent Islamic, with nearly two-thirds of those Shiite Muslims and about a third Sunni Muslims, who were the ruling group under now-deposed leader Saddam Hussein.

“I don’t see these two activities, of providing humanitarian assistance and dialoguing with people from other faiths about what we hold true, to be in opposition to one another or necessarily exclusive of one another,” Lawrence said.

“Christians, as they move into and walk into another culture, … need to understand what matters in that culture; they need to build bridges and think about where there are commonalities, [while] at the same time being clear on what the differences are in our worldviews, and then think hard and long about how they communicate in a way that … respects the person’s conscience … but then also communicate in a way that is culturally sensitive.”

Some Christian leaders have not been sensitive, Lawrence and other panelists said. A reporter asked each panel member to respond to some comments by evangelist Franklin Graham, whose organization, Samaritan’s Purse, is doing relief work in Iraq. After the 2001 terrorist strikes against the United States, Graham called Islam a “very evil and wicked religion.”

“I would say that [Graham] should definitely stop being insensitive,” Lawrence said. “But no, I don’t think he should give up his other goal of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Bruce Wilkinson, a senior vice president with World Vision, said Graham’s “insensitivity was egregious. We try to build relationships within the work that we do. Relationships are foundational to everything that we do in terms of humanitarian relief, and those relationships need to demonstrate respect and dignity for others.”

Abdulaziz Sachedina, a University of Virginia professor of religious studies, said Graham’s comments give Christians “a very bad image. And that’s not the way to convert people or even to share the news with them. I think it has to start with mutual respect. And I think since that is lacking, I don’t know what Mr. Graham would achieve at the end of the day.”

On another topic, Lawrence said that coercion is not a part of true Christian witness.

“One of our hopes [in missions and humanitarian aid] is certainly conversion, but I can’t convert anybody,” Lawrence said. “Therefore, the goal of Christian mission is not so much conversion but communication, and our method is not coercion [but dialogue].”

In his comments, Lawrence cited the relief effort of the SBC’s International Mission Board. According to IMB, 35,000 boxes containing 2.4 million pounds of food have been prepared for distribution through a network in Iraq directly to needy families. While the boxes do not contain Gospel tracts, a label on each quotes John 1:17 in Arabic: “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” The label also says the box is “A gift with love from the Southern Baptist churches in America.”

The issue of “co-joining humanitarian aid and Christian evangelism in Iraq is largely an American phenomenon” produced by Graham and others, Wilkinson said. “[S]uffering people, no matter their religion, welcome aid from all sources as long as it’s appropriate and delivered in a dignified manner.”

“Most often it’s not Christian evangelism that Islamic leaders fear as much as Western secularization,” said Wilkinson, not to be confused with the best-selling author of the same name. In some Muslim countries, “our Christian identification has actually enhanced our work,” he said. Islamic cultures, unlike Western ones, “integrate the spiritual into every aspect of their lives and societies,” he said.

Muslim leaders will say they appreciate the aid from Christians, but they also have “a suspicion of what’s behind that humanitarian aid,” said Sachedina, who had recently returned from a meeting with Islamic and Christian leaders in Jordan. “On the one hand they want them to come in, but at the same time they’re also aware of what evangelical leaders are saying about Muhammad, about the Koran, about Islam, and there’s a lot of hatred about Islam.

“Of all the communities that I’ve seen in the world, I think Muslims tend to be extremely sensitive about what we say about their religion, about their prophet, about their book, and their reaction is extremely, sometimes, emotional to it.”

The perception in Islamic societies is that the United States is a “Christian power,” said Sachedina, an imam in a Sunni mosque in Charlottesville, Va. “And I think the Christian mission work, however noble and however charitable it might be, it still carries the stigma of being connected with one or the other occupying powers, colonizing powers [of the past], and that creates a lot of, I think, misgivings in the mind of Muslims.”

On the question of the U.S. government’s role, Lawrence advocated America “actively promoting and defending the right of Christian missions in Iraq and throughout the whole world.” He rejected any advocacy for U.S. establishment of a church or financial support of any denomination.

The United States should promote the right of Muslims in such countries as Iraq to convert to another faith, Lawrence said.

“I believe that America is obligated both by international law [and] the values of our own Constitution and founding principles to promote this kind of freedom,” he said. “If we have any hope of building a moderate Arab state, freedom of religion, including the freedom to convert, … must be at the forefront of America’s foreign policy goals with relation to Iraq. To fail to protect this liberty is to fail in our responsibilities to protect and promote all the liberties that we as Americans cherish and hold dear, that we as human beings cherish and hold dear.”

Kate Moynihan, Catholic Relief Services’ deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, said CRS is not authorized by the U.S. Catholic Conference to “proselytize” in its provision of aid.

Wilkinson said World Vision, which has about 18,000 staff members serving in nearly 100 countries, takes a similar approach to CRS but looks for indigenous organizations to work with that can provide a faith witness.
Mark Kelly contributed to this article.