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Branches Of The Same Tree 

by Paul Seebeck


Even as reports that another wave of lawlessness in Baghdad is hampering relief and reconstruction efforts in the city and country, another storm is brewing over how the U.S. government is handling -- or not handling -- religious and humanitarian aid to "post-war" Iraq.


Even before the war on Iraq was officially over, Franklin Graham, who prayed at President George W. Bush's inauguration, and who called Islam a "very evil and wicked religion" after 9/11, announced he had relief workers in his organization Samaritan's Purse "poised and ready" to enter the country to "to reach out to love them and save them."


Publicly, Muslim leaders expressed outrage. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned the administration that its inability to convince the world that the war and what happens in its aftermath isn't a "crusade" against Islam, would create "a hundred Bin Ladens." Now that Graham's workers are in Iraq, Samaritan's Purse won't comment about the controversy, or the purpose of their mission, because of "concerns about the safety of their relief workers and those they are helping."


"It's really dangerous," says the Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler. "Those quotes hurt us who are trying to help."


Chandler is President and CEO of Partners International, a Spokane-based organization that works to meet the physical and spiritual needs of those who live in countries where Christians are the minority. "I've worked most of my life in North Africa in a Muslim-majority context, and it disturbs me how Western Christians demonize Islam, creating an Islamaphobia that results in many seeing the Muslim World as our enemy."


Chandler will leave the Inland Northwest in July for Cairo, Egypt, where he will serve as rector of the Anglican/Episcopalian Church and assist the Bishop of Egypt in North Africa, geographically the largest diocese in the world in a predominantly Muslim nation. He believes now is the time for the only "official" Protestant Church in that region, and all Christians, to "wage peace" on Islam.


"We must build on the commonalties of what we mutually believe, instead of misrepresentations," Chandler argues. "For example, Muslims have a strong respect for Jesus, believe he was born of a virgin, that he was a sinless prophet of God and a miracle worker who ascended to heaven and is coming back. Yet to them, Christianity is defined by the West and its military might. In the West, Islam is defined by the extremists, yet they are in such a minority over there. Most of them don't read the militaristic-sounding verses in the Koran. The average Muslim reads them like most Christians read the Old Testament."


"It could all be rather deadly, I think," says Father Michael Cook, a professor of theology at Gonzaga University, "Some of the evangelicals who are poised to enter Iraq to save souls are also huge supporters of Israel. There's a sense Israel can do whatever it wants, because this world view believes that if Israel controls the land, the end times will get ushered in."


Cook believes this literal understanding goes against the grain of what it means to be Catholic and Christian. "Our task isn't to usher in the end times," he says, "but to live life as a task to make this a better world. Our Asian bishops say we can't preach the gospel unless we do three things -- enter into the poverty in a given cultural context, enter into inter religious dialogue and become intertwined in the culture."


Donna Hanson, the Catholic Relief Services director for the Spokane Diocese, tells a story that changed her perspective on religious and humanitarian aid to Iraq. In November, before the war, she was at an international gathering for Catholic Relief Services workers. Sitting at a table across from the regional coordinator of the Middle East from North Africa, she asked him how things were going in Iraq.


"Donna," he answered, "We've been doing nutrition programs for moms and their new babies and water programs for those who are suffering. We've stopped those now because we're trying to get basic medicines and food into the country, so that when your country starts bombing us we can mobilize people there to help one another."


Hanson says she works to provide humanitarian relief on the basis "of need, not creed. Because we're Christian, we feel a responsibility to reach out to vulnerable people. Your world view gets shifted around when you recognize that we're all vulnerable."


Jerry Sittser, professor of religion and philosophy at Whitworth College, concurs that an inclusive worldview is the lifeblood of religious and humanitarian aid. "If you don't believe in anything that inspires or motivates you, you're not just going to give food," says Sittser. "But there is no such thing as true neutrality -- every group comes with a perspective. The question is, can a group be self-aware and self-critical, and in the name of need suspend or mitigate their larger worldview agenda to meet immediate needs? I think most evangelical groups, including Samaritan's Purse, does this."


Sittser acknowledges that Franklin Graham's comments about Islam were "unfortunate," but adds that if Graham believes that Islam is an evil religion, "I'm sure he has his reasons for why he believes that."


As for religious and humanitarian aid, Sittser is most comfortable when its focus is primarily on the affirming of, instead of the saving of humanity. "The model for us is the incarnation," says Sittser. "God chose to become like us, so we should become like the other as much as we can by taking on their cloak of humanity."


And what a cloak of humanity it is right now in post-war Iraq. There is the trauma facing children, women and their families. There is the devastation of the buildings. The destruction of the infrastructure. The continuing cultural difficulties. In the middle of all of this, the safety of the people and the planning for their future is up for grabs.


"My grave concern," says Hanson, "is that while we've destroyed buildings and impacted people, the lack of security is the most basic need right now. Food, shelter and water. The things the relief workers were providing before the war are needed in much greater measure now."


Hanson, through the diocese of Spokane, is making an appeal this month for funds that would go directly to the Catholic Relief Services efforts for people in Iraq. Partners International's approach is similar. "I have many Muslim friends who would give their life for me," says Chandler. "I want to demonstrate the love of Christ for them in all that I do, by serving those who are already there." Because he has spent most of his life in the Middle East, Chandler knows that Christians and Muslims are living and working together in a way they never have before in post-war Iraq, in tenuous balance, desperate for security, food, shelter and water.


This knowledge of a Christian experience as part of a tiny minority, in the midst of a Muslim majority for most of his life, is what drives Chandler to speak out against the "stereotyping" of Islam. "Muslims generally perceive Christianity as part of a Western political agenda," says Chandler. "They see Christ as a Westerner with no relationship to the Eastern culture. Christianity is Middle Eastern in origin. Christ was more like today's Arab than an a Western Christian."


Then he tells the story of Mazhir Mallouhi, a Syrian man. Told by Christians to leave his cultural past, to change his name, to stop socializing in coffee shops with other Arab men, to stay away from mosques, to stop fasting and to pray in a different posture, he did so and was ostracized by both those in his family and faith. But over time, he came to discover this was not because of what he believed -- he calls himself "a Muslim who follows Jesus" -- but because of what he was told to do by the missionaries.


Mallouhi is now an Arab intellectual, novelist and publisher living in Beirut. He has written best-selling books on the gospel of Luke and Genesis. Both of these "Easternized" publications on books of the Bible have been endorsed by Arab-Muslim leaders. In the introduction to The Oriental Reading of the Gospel of Luke, Fahdhel Jamali, the late prime minister of Iraq, wrote, "We Muslims know less about the Christian faith than Christians know about Islam. Therefore I encourage you as Muslims to read this book to understand what they truly believe."


Chandler is currently working on a book on Mallouhi's life that should be out next year. Because of what Chandler has witnessed, he has an analogous message for Western Christians.


"If a Christian from sixth-century Byzantium were to return today, he would find much more that was familiar in the practices of the Muslims than a contemporary American evangelical church," he says. "The tragedy is many U.S. Christians have lost the understanding that our faith is also a Middle Eastern faith. Consequently, they are losing their true sense of identity."





Publication date: 05/22/03
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