A federal agency’s ongoing investigation of an American evangelical relief organization may prove that what separates church and state is not a wall, but a thin line.

Evangelist Franklin Graham’s ministry, Samaritan’s Purse of Boone, N.C., has received $225,000 from the United States Agency for International Development to build prefabricated housing and distribute supplies after two recent earthquakes in El Salvador, a predominantly Roman Catholic nation.

The agency’s officials will try to determine whether the group used some of that money to evangelize local villagers, said spokeswoman Kim Walz, according to http://www.beliefnet.com.

Residents of several villages told a New York Times correspondent that volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse have held half-hour prayer meetings before showing them how to build temporary homes of metal and plastic.
“An organization can’t say, ‘You can’t have this unless you convert,'” Walz said.

Through a spokesman, Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, denied that his ministry used the money to proselytize villagers in the Central American nation, but the organization’s Web site notes 150 Salvadorans converted after watching a movie about Jesus.

“When we build things, we say we build it with the love of Jesus, because that’s why we are here,” said Paul Chiles, director for Samaritan’s Purse in El Salvador, according to the Times. “If we worked with the Peace Corps or the Red Cross, I don’t think they would be comfortable doing this.”

Some American relief officials privately complain members of Congress have put pressure on them to finance the group’s work, even though they have reservations about its proselytizing.

“It may very well be that this is a very fuzzy area right now,” said Kenneth Ellis, the U.S. AID mission director in El Salvador. “I know our legal office in Washington is struggling with how do we deal with faith-based organizations.”

The villagers who received houses were grateful and did not think the religious message was improper, according to the Times.

U.S. AID officials declined to say whether Samaritan’s Purse is at risk of losing future funding. Before the investigation the group was slated to receive another $200,000 grant for El Salvador relief.

Graham would sever his government ties before agreeing to stop preaching the Gospel around the world, the mission’s spokesman Mark DeMoss told Beliefnet.

Alex Smirnov is BCE’s research associate.

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