Amid controversy over outside groups using relief efforts to proselytize, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board set Thursday aside as a day of prayer and fasting for the tsunami-stricken Aceh people of Indonesia.
Out of 4.1 million Acehnese, fewer than 100 are known to be Christians, according to an IMB prayer alert. Most are Sunni Muslim.
“While they are very religious people, they have no concept of a God who loves them so much that He came in the flesh and died to save them from their sin,” the IMB said.
Some U.S. groups involved in international relief efforts follow a Red Cross code of conduct against furthering a particular religious or political viewpoint, believing their good works alone testify to their faith commitment.
“Food is given for need and nothing else,” James East of World Vision said in the Toronto Star. “We don’t proselytize and won’t work with those who do.”
Others are overtly evangelistic, however, handing out tracts attempting to explain the suffering and inviting recipients of aid to prayer meetings. Some in the region view such efforts as coercing or enticing people to convert for material gain.
Vince Isner of FaithfulAmerica.org says such activities cause all American aid agencies—even those that avoid proselytizing—to be viewed with suspicion.
“I think evangelists do this out of the best intentions, but there is a responsibility to try to understand other faith groups and their culture,” Isner, who just returned from Sri Lanka, told the Christian Science Monitor.
“There’s a power imbalance when people are in dire need,” added Isner, who works with the National Council of Churches. “When others offer aid and ask, ‘By the way, do you know why this happened to you? There’s a better way,’ it becomes a delicate power struggle.”
Islamic leaders in Indonesia in mid-January warned of widespread Muslim backlash should international aid groups engage in proselytizing and adopting children left orphans in the disaster.
“This is a reminder. Do not do this in this kind of situation,” Dien Syamsuddin, secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, said, according to the Associated Press.
“The Muslim community will not remain quiet,” Syamsuddin said. “This is a clear statement, and it is serious.”
IMB President Jerry Rankin, at a trustee meeting last week, lamented that so many tsunami victims died without ever hearing the Christian gospel.
“The media is saying ‘Where is God?'” Rankin said, quoted by Baptist Press. “The question is, ‘Where were we?’ Where were we who allowed thousands to be swept into eternity” before hearing about Jesus?
“There is nothing we can do about the multitudes who lost their lives,” Rankin said. “We couldn’t have helped them in the disaster of a tsunami wave. But we stand accountable for the fact that they … never had an opportunity” to accept Jesus as their Savior.
The IMB has in the past been accused of insensitivity to other religions for timing prayers for conversion of Jews, Hindus and Muslims in conjunction with holy days of the respective faiths.
Because of a long-running civil war, Indonesia’s government closed the Aceh province to outsiders 18 months ago. Since the Dec. 26 tsunami disaster, however, the government reopened the area for humanitarian aid and reconstruction.
Specific prayer requests by the IMB include that “many Acehnese would hear the truth about Jesus presented in a culturally sensitive and appropriate way.”
Southern Baptists were also asked to pray that “God would stay plagues and diseases that often follow natural disasters of this magnitude,” that “local believers would be bold and compassionate witnesses to their hurting communities” and “Christians would be wise in the way they conduct themselves during relief efforts.”
The IMB has raised more than $6.8 million for tsunami relief efforts, Baptist Press reported Wednesday.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.