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ER=Emergency relief

"ER=Emergency relief" Continued...

Issue: "Supreme warning," July 5, 2003

Those critics differ from their more liberal counterparts by stopping short of calling for Christian humanitarian groups to stay out of Muslim countries. In fact, recent guidelines published by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the National Association of Evangelicals state: "We cannot accept the notion that there is an 'Islamic world' in which Western Christians have no right to 'meddle.'"

Mr. Graham says experience informs what he says about Islam, including more than 70 trips to Muslim countries by his own estimate. Nearly two years of controversy hasn't changed his aid agency's purpose: "Our help is for the body and the soul."

He remains bemused by the criticism, telling WORLD in an interview last December he is "not a Muslim fighter" and "not on a crusade against Islam." He said, "When Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' I believe that. Suddenly I'm a radical and an extremist because I don't believe that all ways lead to God?"

In the midst of public controversy, heated e-mails to the Boone, N.C., headquarters of Samaritan's Purse spiked to 500 one day in April. Tax-deductible contributions jumped also. A mass mailing that emphasized aid to Iraq had gone into mailboxes before the April headlines; loyal donors responded with double the expected contributions-nearly $1 million.

The organization, according to projects director Ken Isaacs, faced a dilemma. "Franklin Graham had become this lightning rod in a river of hatred, but we had raised money specifically to serve in Iraq and we were obligated to use it that way."

Still, the negative publicity forced a change in plans. Western staffers with the Iraqi project were pulled out of Jordan following threats made against the organization. Local workers rummaged through the group's warehouse, stripping logos from hygiene kits and other items that would tie the materials to Samaritan's Purse. In one case, blankets stamped with a logo were distributed to Bedouins nearby instead of being trucked into Iraq. Mr. Graham inserted himself more than usual in day-to-day planning sessions about Iraq, and a strategy gradually formed, according to Mr. Isaacs: "It became, Franklin must decrease but the work itself must increase."

"Decreasing" Mr. Graham initially meant that much-needed aid would have to be delivered without generating any much-feared publicity. On April 28 the first three trucks carrying medical supplies and emergency gear left Amman at midnight for the treacherous, 12-hour drive to Baghdad. The Samaritan's Purse team, headed by Mr. Dagher, visited an Islamic clinic run by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a public hospital, staffed by Muslim doctors, at Yarmouk in west Baghdad. They also met with church leaders in Baghdad, where Samaritan's Purse has supported food and education programs since shortly after the first Gulf War. Throughout the weeklong trip, the organization's name was kept out of the media, but team members kept their eyes open for future opportunities.

"We know the time is short. A new government will mean a lot of red tape, but for now the field is wide open to Christians," said Mr. Dagher. He told WORLD he received a warm welcome and letters of thanks from the local imams who run the Islamic clinic-evidence, he said, that they don't mind Christian aid. The criticism of Christian relief groups, Mr. Dagher maintains, comes from outside Iraq.

Other relief-group coordinators agree. Serge Duss, director of public policy and advocacy for World Vision, said, "No one in Iraq is saying, 'No, we will refuse humanitarian aid from Christian organizations.' The controversy is a mountain made out of a molehill because of the person who said it and his association with a humanitarian organization."

Asked whether World Vision had made any changes in how it deploys aid because of the controversy, Mr. Duss said, "Absolutely not." World Vision's presence in Iraq also goes back to the first Gulf War, and Mr. Duss said humanitarian agencies are used to working in countries that are predominantly non-Christian. World Vision, in another example, has continued work in Gugarat, India, even after Hindu extremists murdered missionary Graham Staines and his two sons. "When people are suffering, they are not asking where the aid is coming from," Mr. Duss said.

Few of the Graham critics saw the irony of invoking a religious curfew on a country just liberated from dictatorship. They also failed to examine the on-the-ground performance of the groups now falling under closer scrutiny. In addition to Samaritan's Purse and World Vision, others who openly label themselves "Christian" include the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, World Relief, and Food for the Hungry. The Jordan Baptist Society and Jordanian Evangelical Committee for Relief and Development are regional groups working specifically as faith-based charities in Iraq.

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