A US boost to Graham's quest for converts

Lubango, Angola - In this dusty city in the mountains, people remember the sparkling new paint job on their soccer stadium and the American preacher who turned it into a grand stage, bringing a 1,400-voice choir and even the provincial governor for a three-day festival before 47,000 people.

The Rev. Franklin Graham came to this remote African city in triumph, to dedicate a $5 million medical center, which he is building with private donations and US government funds.

He stayed a week and led 13,496 souls -- including about 6,000 children -- to Jesus.

``It was surprising because his gift to us is social concern rather than preaching Gospel," said Bernardo Chinoia , Angolan national director of Youth for Christ, who was awed by Graham's preaching.

Graham, the stentorian-voiced son of legendary evangelist Billy Graham, probably would have begun building the Evangelical Medical Center without the backing of the US government. But President Bush's Agency for International Development gave the evangelical group the imprimatur of the American people.

Americans are rarely seen in Angola, which is still recovering from a 30-year civil war in which the US-backed rebels were partly blamed for the land mines that still cover the country. In Lubango, orphans live on the streets and tens of thousands of people squat in dirt shelters, on a landscape so filthy that the first layer of topsoil seems to be composed of paper and plastic wrappers.

Bush has spoken repeatedly of the importance of leveraging the strength and commitment of faith-based groups to fight disease and despair. But Graham combines his much-admired charity work with another agenda.

``The hospitals we support in Africa bring thousands of people each year to salvation in Jesus Christ," he wrote on his website. ``. . .Knowing the hearts of the doctors and church leaders in Angola, I believe the Lubango hospital will have a tremendous impact for the kingdom of God."

The 64-bed hospital is still unfinished 16 months after Graham's dedication, despite $830,000 in funds from USAID. Its completion is the long-cherished dream of a well-known missionary doctor in Lubango, Stephen Foster, backed by the country's evangelical ministerial alliance, which, along with the Catholic Church, has been working to reestablish Christianity in the wake of the civil war that ended in 2002.

``We had lost several hospitals in the war, and some brothers from America had an idea of how to help us," explained Daniel Estevao, the hospital administrator.

Graham, in a press release announcing his festival -- ``the first of its kind in an African nation" -- described his goal as reintroducing Angolans to Christ after three decades of Marxist rule. But much of Lubango never stopped attending Catholic services, and local people who joined the festival said many Catholics were drawn by the lights and music, and later decided to sample the evangelical church.

Competition between Catholics and evangelicals is evident at the medical center. No Catholic chaplains will be allowed, said Minne Prins, the Dutch-born country director of North Carolina-based Samaritan's Purse, Graham's development group. The staff and clergy will be evangelicals.

``All the nurses are Christians," Prins said. ``Nurses will be trained to not only talk about the disease but also talk about Jesus."

Since the US government funds went for construction, not treatment, there is no restriction on proselytizing. ``We do not say you have to be Christian -- or convert to Christianity -- to be treated, but we give you a chance or opportunity to listen to the Gospel," said the Rev. Jose Abias, general secretary of the Evangelical Alliance of Angola.

Abias met Franklin Graham about 20 years ago, when the young preacher visited war torn Angola; police later put Abias in prison after finding a copy of Billy Graham's book ``Angels: God's Secret Agents" in Abias' house and accusing him of organizing a secret agency.

The trip made a strong impression on Graham, now 54, who has emerged as a forceful advocate for US involvement in Africa. His prime focus has been Sudan, where his organization runs a large hospital and medical clinics; he has been a vocal critic of the Sudanese government and its religion, Islam.

More conservative and harder edged than his father, Graham has not hesitated to blame the Muslim faith for the violence of Islamic fighters: ``I see what Islam has done. I see what it's doing today to Christians. I see what it's doing around the world, the persecution, the slaughter, " he said nearly four years ago on Beliefnet.com.

Immediately after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, Graham entered Iraq, seemingly intent on bringing Christianity to the Muslim nation. Graham said his main goal was providing humanitarian aid, but the visit caused a stir in the Muslim press, which saw him as Bush's religious envoy.

But while Graham's father was content to serve as a spiritual confidant of presidents, Franklin Graham has had no hesitations about pressing for certain policy goals, including more US attention to AIDS in Africa and genocide in Darfur, both of which won him plaudits from liberals.

Graham is also a strong backer of Bush's faith-based initiative, and his Samaritan's Purse has received USAID contracts worth about $31 million over the last five years.

In early 2001, the Bush administration defended Samaritan's Purse after Catholics in El Salvador complained that Graham's group was linking taxpayer-funded earthquake relief to attendance at evangelical services; USAID acknowledged that Samaritan's Purse was holding services before offering instruction in how to build shelters, but said that no one was turned away.

In a Globe interview, Graham described USAID funds as only about 4 percent of Samaritan's Purse's total receipts, and said his group rejects government money if it can't ``abide by the stipulations."

But figuring out how Samaritan's Purse fits in with government goals is harder.

The spokesman for the USAID Angola office, Alonzo Wind, said its top priority is fighting malaria by destroying mosquitoes ; Graham's hospital grant, Wind said, came through a different program administered in the United States.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of people in Lubango will still be treated in the woefully ill-equipped public health system.

Aid specialists say many Africans realize that they have little choice but to accept whatever aid comes their way, no matter how many strings are attached..

``In sub-Saharan Africa, the needs are so enormous that it doesn't really matter to people if you want something in return," said Gita Honwana Welch, director of the UN Development program in Angola. ``People say `We'll take the book,' Jehovah's Witness or whatever, providing you bring something of social value that they want."

``The state comes with its ideology, the faith-based guys come with their ideology," she added. ``In extreme poverty, choices do not exist anymore."