Christian Groups' Iraq Aid Offer Draws Criticism

Two U.S.-based evangelical Christian groups are pledging to provide humanitarian aid to post-war Iraq, but critics on Friday feared that proselytizing by the groups could ignite Muslim concerns about invading Christian crusaders.

The 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and evangelist Franklin Graham's Samaritan's Purse say they are poised to send food, medicine and expertise into Iraq from neighboring Kuwait and Jordan once the fighting stops.

"The problem with these kind of efforts is they create the perception that this is a crusade, or a war on Islam," said Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"You have extremely wealthy groups, at least in relative terms, going into impoverished, distressed areas, basically having a Bible in one hand and food in the other," Hooper said. "It's really not something that should be done, and we would object to it if it was done in America."

The Christian groups said they have experience in the region and are acting out of good faith, not a desire to make converts.

"We will follow guidelines set up by whoever is in charge of the relief effort," said Mark Kelly of the Southern Baptists' International Mission Board. He refused further comment on whether the group's members would eschew proselytizing as some other Christian aid groups have done.

"These people know we're coming because God's love is in our eyes. They're all God's people," Kelly said.

The Baptists have provided $250,000 in aid so far to refugees who fled Iraq for Kuwait, and Samaritan's Purse has said it was prepared to provide a number of physicians and deliver $500,000 worth of food, medicine and shelter.

Graham's participation is particularly sensitive because of comments he made shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks calling Islam a "wicked" religion -- views that he has since softened by saying he respects other beliefs.

President Bush suffered an embarrassment of his own when he proclaimed a U.S. "crusade" against those responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush, a devout Christian with a core of support among conservative Christians, has since sought to assure Arabs and Muslims that U.S. military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq were not a conflict between religions. Bush also took to task some conservative Christians to discourage a backlash against Muslims following the Sept. 11 attacks.

Proselytizing by outsiders in Iraq could also upset the delicate relationship between existing Christian Iraqis and the predominant Muslims, Hooper said.

In traditional readings of Islamic law, converting or trying to convert a Muslim to another faith is punishable by death. Under more modern civil laws in the Islamic world, for example in Turkey, it is a serious crime, punishable by jail time.

The need for humanitarian aid in post-war Iraq was expected to be huge, evident in the desperation for food and water in southern cities.

"The Iraqi people are going to need as much help as they can get but the issue ... is whether there is a proselytizing motivation behind it," said Rev. Paul Rutgers of the inter-faith group Parliament of the World's Religions.

"Any aid given should be given for the Iraqi people, and not to proselytize. This absolutely cannot be seen as a war between Christianity and Islam," Rutgers said.