BERUWALA, Sri Lanka–An inter-religious flag representing Christians, Buddhists and Muslims sits atop a newly erected memorial to the 136 tsunami-related deaths in Beruwala, Sri Lanka.
The metal sculpture has hands jutting from roiling waves, suggesting the futile desperation experienced in that village on the Galle Road.
The ground around the memorial was still damp and littered with damaged fishing vessels.
Since the tsunami struck some eight weeks ago, the devastated island has experienced a surge of relief groups, highlighting the deep disagreement between Christians who support inter-religious cooperative aid and those who use aid to proselytize.
On one hand, evidence of inter-religious cooperation was plentiful in a nation where 7 percent of the population is Christian and 70 percent is Buddhist.
Kingsley Perera, general secretary of the Sri Lankan Baptist Sangamaya (Union), took EthicsDaily.com to the Home for Handicapped Children, which was started by Presbyterians and is supported by Baptists.
Located on a lagoon in the slums of Colombo, the home for severely handicapped children has a worship place for Buddhists at the entrance and has received a $10,000 commitment from Baptists for repairs and ramps for wheelchairs.
At another childcare facility on the outskirts of the nation’s capital, Hungarian Baptist Aid is funding a 1,000-square-foot wing at the Buddhist sponsored Rehabilitation Children’s Home. The largest children’s home in the country includes Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Catholic children, who may attend worship services in their own traditions.
The head of the orphanage, a Buddhist priest, readily welcomed Christian visitors to the groundbreaking ceremony, which was attended by North Carolina Baptist volunteers, a Baptist World Alliance representative and HBA staff.
Perera said Buddhists, Muslims and Christians are good neighbors and “have no problems with each other.”
He did point out, however, that fundamentalist Buddhist clergy had sought an anti-conversion bill, which the Supreme Court ruled was against the nation’s Constitution guaranteeing religious freedom.
In his second term as the head of the Baptist union in Sri Lanka, Perera acknowledged that Buddhists historically did have a “complaint against Christians.”
Buddhists were persecuted during the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial periods, he said.
“I confess that we [Christians] misused our freedom,” Perera said. He recounted the practice of World Vision, an international Christian relief organization, which would build a latrine and then tell the villagers “now come to church.”
Perera also gave EthicsDaily.com a newspaper article from The Sunday Times about the Antioch Community Church in Waco, Texas, which used relief aid as a means of proselytizing.
“The attempts at proselytizing are angering local Christian leaders, who worry that they could provoke a violent backlash against Christians in Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country that is already a religious tinderbox,” the article said.
The article pointed out that Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief abide by the Red Cross “guidelines that humanitarian aid not be used to further political or religious purposes.”
Paul Montacute, director of Baptist World Aid, said that “missions and aid work need to be kept apart.”
Aid distribution without proselytizing was evident at the Moratuwa Baptist Church, one of the 23 Baptist churches in Sri Lanka.
Dry rations were given to those who had extended family members affected by the tsunami living with them. Some 600 packets of rice, sugar, powdered milk, a tin of fish, lentils and tooth paste were distributed daily.
The church had supplied 15 Sri Lankan-made bikes and fishing boxes to fishermen who had lost the equipment for their livelihoods.
Returning later in the day to the church, Perera was distressed to find a Southern Baptist missionary present. Perera said the missionary violated the spirit of partnership by coming “without informing the Sangamaya.”
Perera said Southern Baptists left Sri Lanka “overnight without notice,” a year and a half ago moving to Thailand. They vacated Sri Lanka, he said, “because they said there was no opportunity for evangelism.”
“If you are using the Southern Baptist method of evangelism, there’s no role for Southern Baptists in Sri Lanka,” he explained. “If you use the method of Jesus Christ, there is.”
Perera referred to the Bible story where 10 lepers came to Jesus for healing, and he healed them all and sent them back.
“When people come for help, we should help them without the expectation of conversion,” he said. “We are for the indirect method of evangelism.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com.