Fundamentalist Christian relief workers who traveled to Indonesia to help rebuild the country after the devastating 2004 tsunami have been accused of inflaming interfaith tensions in the region by secretly targeting Muslims for conversion.
The Post and Courier of Charleston, S.C., examined the issue in a series of articles in late December. The stories by reporter Michael Gartland looked at the tensions created by the proselytism efforts of groups like Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse.
Graham’s charity has received at least $10 million in federal aid since 2003. Although none of the money is earmarked for work in Indonesia, critics see the church-state alliance as problematic, especially in non-Christian countries.
Indonesia is predominantly Muslim, and attempts to convert Indonesians from Islam are illegal. Adopting another faith can also bring ostracism and social isolation, especially in rural areas.
Gartland concedes that overt proselytism efforts are rare. But he wrote that Muslims in the region where he traveled, Aceh &8#151; a territory on the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra &8#151; remain extremely wary of relief groups tied to missionary organizations.
Part of the problem stems from the mission statement of Samaritan’s Purse, which asserts, “We are an effective means of reaching hurting people in countries around the world with food, medicine, and other assistance in the Name of Jesus Christ. This, in turn, earns us a hearing for the Gospel, the Good News of eternal life through Jesus Christ.”
One Samaritan’s Purse worker told Gartland he intends to stay behind after reconstruction to convert Muslims into born-again Christians. The man would not give his name, saying his safety would be jeopardized.
Another worker with the group, Mamat Matius, said he came from another part of Indonesia and considers himself a Christian evangelist.
“We are here to plow the land,” Matius said. “It’s not like you’re sowing right away. We show them little by little.”
Radical Muslim groups in Indonesia have vowed to use violence to block Christian missionary activity. Even some Christian leaders in the country worry about overzealous evangelism.
Gustav Dupe, an advisor to one of Indonesia’s Christian political parties, told Gartland evangelism efforts only harm the country’s Christian minority, which is already treated like second-class citizens.
“It’s a stupid action,” Dupe said. “The U.S. government and Bush are against Muslim fundamentalists. The Christians in Aceh are a form of Christian fundamentalists. I oppose them. Those who are counterproductive, we have to say, ‘Please we don’t need you.’ We have to say, ‘Please, go back to your country, or please, find another field for your mission.’”
Government officials feel frustrated. They need the relief money and labor brought by groups like Samaritan’s Purse but also know that a place like Aceh can quickly become a flashpoint for religiously based violence.
Nasir Djamil, a member of the Indonesian parliament, said he has complained to the government officials who are responsible for curbing proselytism in Aceh. But he said nothing has been done.
“The government is very reluctant to talk about this issue,” Djamil said. “They are very afraid this issue will become public. They try to hide it in a very tight box. There isn’t any other way. We just hope the help from outside is financial only. We have very limited resources.”
Djamil was reluctant to criticize the Christian groups but said he believed the issue would eventually boil over.
“The government can’t cover this up,” he said. “It can be seen with the naked eye.”