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Tsunami turnabout

"Tsunami turnabout" Continued...

Issue: "The fewer and the proud," April 23, 2005

Deaths from the tsunami were comparatively low on Nias and Simeulue because of folk memories from 1907, when a killer wave swept the islands. Advice passed down through generations told islanders to head for the hills if the sea suddenly disappeared from the beach. But they could do little against a massive earthquake.

Aid workers have had to rough it, too. Since the earthquake, Mr. Hickey has not moved back to Concern Worldwide's Simeulue house, which is cracked and unstable, and keeps contact only through his satellite phone. The group expects to grow its island team and help locals build more traditional housing from coconut trees, which bend more easily with the earth's shifts than concrete.

"There's no internet, no TV, no other forms of communication. . . . It's kind of nice in a way," Mr. Hickey said. But islanders have an obstacle-ridden road back to normal life. "They're real survivors," Mr. Jacobson said, "but they need all the help they can get.

No aid under the influence

For extremist Buddhists in Sri Lanka, some unwelcome guests rode in with the tsunami: Western aid workers. They fear these foreigners rendering aid will also render religion to disaster victims, fueling Christianity's spread throughout the South Asian island.

Christians are a small fraction of the majority Buddhist nation and have endured over 150 attacks in the last two years. Gangs of Buddhists have set fire to church buildings and beaten pastors. Now the Sri Lankan government plans to introduce a bill in parliament that would outlaw "unethical" or coerced conversions. In practice it would make life hard for faith-based aid groups: Even giving food or a blanket to someone of another faith could earn fines and imprisonment of up to seven years.

Grumbling over Christian influences has already surfaced after the tsunami. In January organizers of an international fundraising cricket match for the wave's victims planned to funnel funds through World Vision. The prospect produced an unusual alliance: Marxists and extremist Buddhists in parliament demanded the government seize the money and distribute aid itself. In late 2003 militant Buddhists labeled the aid group part of an "NGO mafia." One of its offices was firebombed that November.

This is not the first time anti-conversion legislation has cropped up in Sri Lanka. Last July the hardline Buddhist party in parliament, the JHU, introduced a similar bill that the Supreme Court struck down. The latest version will likely be stronger, however. The government has said the bill will go to conscience vote, meaning lawmakers will not have to vote along party lines as is usual in a parliamentary system.

"It will turn it into a Buddhist versus anti-Buddhist vote," said Roger Severino, legal counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It will put pressure on Buddhist MPs to vote for it." The Fund, a law firm that advocates freedom of religion, is working to defeat the bill ahead of its introduction this month.

Despite the radical rhetoric, aid workers say tsunami victims are overwhelmingly grateful for the help they are receiving. "The people who are opposing us are people who are far away from the tsunami areas coming by jeep, coming by car and beating up on Christian workers," explained KP Yohannan, president of Gospel for Asia. Still, he stresses that persecution against Christians is not new in Sri Lanka. While the anti-conversion bill could make ministry harder, he said his workers plan to keep sharing the gospel no matter what happens.

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