For those excluded, loan program is no success

Mombasa, Kenya - There are two veteran tailors huddled over the sewing machines in Reams Uniform Suppliers, a small shop tucked into the heart of this humid port city: Vincent, a Christian, who has worked there for 10 years, and Mohammad, a Muslim, who has worked there for eight.

Vincent plans to start his own tailoring business using a loan from a local lending group funded by Partners Worldwide, a Michigan-based Christian group. But Mohammad has no chance of getting that loan. He, like the vast majority of people living on Kenya's coast, is Muslim.

Partners Worldwide has been hailed by the White House as a model for international assistance. The administration has given $700,000 in taxpayer dollars to Partners to help cover the cost of staff in Kenya and two other countries and to help pay for mentoring and training programs for businesses receiving loans, though not the loans themselves.

Nonetheless, the focus on Christian businesses has sparked anger toward Americans in Mombasa, which is an important front in the war on terrorism. In 2002, terrorists fired a missile at an Israeli airliner, the same day that a suicide bomber killed 16 people at a Mombasa hotel.

The anger of local Muslims who have been excluded from the loan program has caused some soul-searching within Partners itself, as members grapple with the question of whether they can include Muslims without undermining their core mission of ``equipping Christian business people to help the poor and each other."

But the exclusion of Muslims has caused no consternation at the US Agency for International Development, which gave Partners the four-year grant.

``I'm sure whatever challenge this presents will be resolved in a good way," said Jack Hawkins , a senior USAID official who has worked closely with Partners as part of a White House initiative to promote volunteerism.

But some people question the wisdom of funding such an exclusionary group when the United States needs to promote good will in the Muslim world.

Edward Djerejian , a former US diplomat involved in efforts to improve the American image among Muslims, said he has never encountered a Christian program in a Muslim area that excludes Muslims.

Djerejian said the US government should support programs that ``promote coexistence" between Muslims and Christians and that don't have a separate agenda of advancing Christianity.

And legal specialists in church-state issues say giving government funds to a program that discriminates against Muslims raises constitutional issues as well.

``It is constitutionally troubling for the government to be building the capacity of an organization whose service is religiously discriminatory, and the foreign setting of that service does not make it any less troubling," said Ira C. Lupu, a George Washington University law professor.

In recent years, church-based microfinance groups have sprouted up across Kenya, mixing Christian fellowship with access to low-interest capital that helps struggling businesses grow. Such groups say they cater to both the financial and spiritual well-being of the poor, and they boast high repayment rates because members know and trust one another.

But Partners, originally called Partners for Christian Development, is unique in that it receives funding from the US government.

Doug Seebeck , executive director of Partners, credits President Bush with opening a new chapter in US assistance overseas by funding nontraditional, faith-based development projects.

``I find there is more openness in government to talk about faith than ever before," he said. ``Whether that will pass with this administration, who knows, but it's a marked change."

Partners was founded in 1997, after a group of volunteers from the Christian Reformed Church in North America , based in Grand Rapids, traveled to Kenya to see the aid work that Seebeck was doing as a missionary. Some of the volunteers were business people who asked how they could use their skills to help bring Kenya out of poverty.

One volunteer, Dennis Hoekstra , struck up a friendship with a Kenyan who owned a metal shop. The man needed training in metal polishing, and Hoekstra arranged for him to get it in the United States. Hoekstra and Seebeck helped the metal-shop owner create a small-scale loan organization that they called the Christian Entrepreneurs' Saving Society. The original loan recipients were close-knit friends from a Bible-study group.

Partners eventually helped set up more lending groups across Kenya and spread to 20 countries, where they now have 30 lending affiliates and have helped 4,000 businesses. To help explain the vision behind Partners, Seebeck talks of the struggle to convert Indonesia to Christianity.

``Christians and Muslims arrived there at the same time," he said. ``The Christians . . . did evangelism in their compounds. The Muslims went into the marketplace and did business. Their faith and their work were all the same thing. Today Indonesia is the largest Muslim nation in the world."

In 2000, Hoekstra traveled to Mombasa and searched for a Christian leader to set up an affiliate there. He met a mechanic named Wilson Asena Adira , who worked with Hoekstra to set up Fullscale Business Trust. Partners staff members organize training, set up visits from American mentors, and provide some financial backing for the money Fullscale lends.

``We talk about seeing your business as your primary place of ministry," Seebeck said.

Although USAID once shied away from overtly religious groups, Seebeck said, Partners was enthusiastically welcomed by the Bush administration in 2001.

``They loved our concept almost from the beginning and they were encouraging us to make proposals," said Hoekstra, who traveled to Washington with Seebeck for the initial meeting with USAID.

The group eventually received a grant from a USAID fund known as the Global Development Alliance. The grant covers part of the cost of Partners' mentoring program and some of the staff salaries. The taxpayer-funded grant also covers training programs that help loan recipients develop their business skills, and provides technical assistance to Fullscale and other affiliates, Seebeck said.

About $5,000 of the USAID funds have gone to Fullscale, for loan-management software, travel for staff members, and training for loan recipients, Seebeck said.

Fullscale does not serve Muslims, but Seebeck said some other training programs that Partners runs are open to anyone in business, including Muslims.

But Partners literature makes it clear that the group's central goal is to promote Christianity and Christian businesses.

``How would you like to be a business missionary?" asks a page on the group's website that recruits mentors. ``Whether you're a manufacturer or a marketer, doctor or pharmaceutical producer . . . Jesus is calling you!"

In Kenya, two local groups that Partners established require that new members be Christian and that they be recommended in writing by a pastor. The groups meet in churches to pray together for business success. Some of the American mentors advise business owners to consider a prospective employee's dedication to the Christian faith when they are hiring and firing, explained a Fullscale staff member.

Seebeck said that requiring a pastor's recommendation is a common practice in Kenya and that it was initiated by the local people who helped establish the groups. He said Partners has set up some groups that do serve Muslims -- in Bangladesh, for instance -- and that Partners' Christian mentors have offered business advice to Muslims in Afghanistan. Seebeck said Partners does not require that their local affiliates exclude other faiths.

But Martin Mutuku , program manager for Partners in Nairobi who oversees Fullscale and other affiliates, made it clear that including Muslims is not a part of his vision.

``We started this to help Christian business people to grow their businesses," he said. ``We are using this as a vehicle to spread the word. So if they want to join, they may have to convert."

In inland Kenya, where Christian missionaries have long been active, Mutuku's outlook hardly raises an eyebrow.

But in Mombasa, where Christians make up fewer than 40 percent of residents and in many cases aren't native to the region, the exclusion of Muslims prompted immediate anger toward the group -- and toward the US government.

``I see that Americans are helping Christians only, and it makes me feel bad," said Mwanaidi Mponda , a 56-year-old Muslim woman who tried to join Fullscale in 2004. Her Christian neighbor, a Fullscale loan recipient, urged her to apply for a loan to start a doughnut-making business.

``They asked, `Are you a Muslim? Muslims don't believe in paying interest,' " she recalled, referring to the traditional Islamic prohibition on the payment of interest.

Mponda said that she told them she had no problem with paying interest, as long as it was not extortionary. Fullscale's rate is 12 percent, far below bank rates that often exceed 20 percent in Kenya.

Then she said she was told that there would be Christian prayers at the group's meetings.

``I said, `No problem,' " she recalled. `` `We can wait outside until the prayer is finished, and when the time comes, we'll enter and be together.' "

Then she said the staff at Fullscale told her that they would call her back and let her know about the membership. She is still waiting, she said.

Other Muslims have tried to join the group, which has its sparse offices in the heart of old-town Mombasa, where women in black headscarves shop for fruit and where the call to prayer rings out from mosques at 5 a.m.

In the second-floor lobby of Fullscale's offices, visitors are greeted by a display case of Partners literature. ``Lead like Jesus," one headline says. ``Christian businesses transforming lives," reads another.

A Muslim fishermen's association tried to join, according to Fullscale staff. So did a women's group that had hoped to sell snacks at an outdoor kiosk. All were discouraged from applying, the staff said, and were told to wait until a later date to hear if they had been accepted.

Adira , the mechanic who helped found Fullscale in 2000, said the exclusion of Muslims has created a major challenge for the organization.

``We have been receiving very many Muslims who are wanting to join," he said. ``But according to our faith, we cannot allow them."

Despite the controversy in Mombasa, Partners has won acclaim in the US for its unique model of marrying Christianity and entrepreneurism. The group made a deep impression on Hawkins, who had been appointed to lead Bush's effort to promote international volunteerism among American professionals.

``They were a model," Hawkins said, explaining how he used the group as a blueprint for Volunteers for Prosperity, an office within USAID that links Americans to volunteer opportunities overseas.

This past spring, Hawkins flew to Michigan to present Hoekstra a presidential service award at Partners' annual convention.

Hawkins said he was not troubled by the group's emphasis on Christianity.

``The president is committed to supporting the work of faith-based organizations," Hawkins said. ``The fact that Partners Worldwide itself is a faith-based organization is never an issue that came up. The fact that they were successful entrepreneurs is really what drives this."

Nonetheless, even some of Fullscale's own members have urged the group to accept their Muslim friends and business partners, Adira said. He said he brought up the issue with Partners this year at the group's convention in Michigan, but so far the policy of exclusion remains.

``There are some who say, `These are human beings. If they can repay the loan, why not?' " Adira said. ``But others say, `No, since this is a Christian organization, it helps Christians. Muslims should go to Arabia' " to look for funds.

Adira said that Partners could solve the problem by bringing Muslim business people from America to work in Mombasa. ``I leave it to Partners to come up with a solution because they are the ones who are funding us," he said.

Hoekstra said he believes Partners should help Muslim entrepreneurs establish their own credit group. Seebeck said he was deeply concerned by reports of disgruntled Muslims and that he would seek more information about it.

But in the meantime, Muslims such as Mponda have been left to wonder why the US government supports a group that excludes her because she is Muslim.

``We are Christians and Muslims together," she said. ``Our language is one. If we are helping each other, we don't care if it is a Christian or a Muslim. . . . This was the first time I have ever had that happen in my life."