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Religious Aid Groups Try To Convert Victims

Western Christian Groups Hand Out Food & Bibles

By Jason Burke in Banda Aceh
The Observer - UK
1-16-5

Dozens of religious groups have moved in to Aceh, looking to help tsunami victims - and convert them and others, creating tensions in the disaster area.

The arrival of Western Christian groups with records of aggressive preaching risks confrontation with local Muslim leaders which could jeopardise the provision of aid to the 600,000 local people made homeless by the disaster. The death toll in Aceh stands at around 110,000 and is expected to rise.

Reacting to the attempts of one American group to fly hundreds of local children to a Christian orphanage, Din Syamsuddin, head of the Indonesian Council of Clerics, said any attempt to spread religion under the cover of aid was wrong.

'The Muslim community will not remain quiet. This a clear statement, and it is serious,' he said.

Many survivors of the disaster are deeply traumatised by their experience and thus, experts say, vulnerable to religious groups. The disaster has led to a huge increase in religious sentiment. Many Acehnese speak of the wave as a punishment from God for immorality and lax Islamic practice, pointing out that in many villages only the mosque was left standing.

'I had faith but never did what I should have done,' said Shinta Ekhsani, a 29 year-old English teacher. 'I did not pray five times a day. I did not teach my children about Islam. I was too materialistic. Now I have changed.'

Most Indonesians follow a moderate strand of Islam, very different from more hardline varieties increasingly prevalent in the Middle East. Local Muslim groups were among the first to bring help to victims. Aceh is Indonesia's most religiously conservative province.

However, more radical Muslim groups started arriving in the province within days. These include the Islamic Defenders' Front, which has attacked bars and shops selling alcohol in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, and Lashkar Mujahideen, which endorses a militant ideology and has alleged links to the killing of Christians.

Last week, speaking outside a tent at Banda Aceh's busy military airport under a banner reading 'Islamic Law Enforcement', Salman al-Farizi said his group were in Aceh to give medical and food assistance, remove corpses, evacuate refugees and to preach. 'The survivors will be helped to spread the true word of Allah,' al-Farizi said.

Elsewhere, groups are handing out Korans and even veils alongside aid. Volunteers from the al-Azhar Foundation in Jakarta said they had distributed 1,993 Korans to refugees from Lokh Nga, one of the worst-hit villages. 'Many want to read the Koran to help them with their trauma,' said Anwar Sani, director of the foundation.

Some Christian groups, however, are instructing workers not to display church names or wear crosses.

'We prefer to address the physical needs first,' said William Suhanda, an Indonesian whose Christian group, 'Light of Love for Aceh', is helping distribute food in Banda Aceh and hopes to bring 50 children to a Christian orphanage in Jakarta. 'We also want to expose them to Christian values... so they can see the other side, that we're about the love of Christ,' he said.

Mark Kosinski, an American evangelist who arrived in Aceh from Malaysia last week, said: 'These people need food but they also need Jesus. God is trying to awaken people and help them realise salvation is in Christ.'

One US Christian group was revealed last week to have tried to airlift 300 'tsunami orphans' to a Christian children's home. WorldHelp started raising funds for the operation until it learned that the Indonesian government had banned non-Muslims from adopting Acehnese orphans.

'What we were attempting to do in finding a home for these orphans is no different from what Mother Teresa did in placing Hindu orphans in a Christian children's home,' said Vernon Brewer, president of WorldHelp.

The Church of Scientology has also established a presence in Banda Aceh, setting up a base opposite the governor's mansion. 'We are not here to proselytise. That would be distasteful,' said Greg Churilov. 'We hope we are just seen as another relief group.'

However, there are also opportunities for co-operation. The US navy's high-profile effort to assist Indonesia deliver aid has helped counter anger over the Iraq war. The Islamic Defenders' Front spent much of this week removing corpses from collapsed homes alongside an Indonesian Christian group. Mormons have teamed up with Islamic relief operations to send aid to the region.

Last week, the UN even asked Lashkar Mujahideen to unload a plane of relief supplies because it was short of personnel.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
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