News analysis: Separating aid from conversion

Faith-based charities have some difficult choices to make over religion, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

During relief operations after the Asian tsunami, there were some reports of Christian organisations - often from the United States - attempting to use the disaster to convert people. In the predominantly Hindu Andaman and Nicobar Islands, for example, a banner on the road to a relief camp proclaimed 'Jesus saves'.

A similar issue was raised by a recent news report in Third Sector about Save the Children (a non-religious charity ) employing a senior staff member who is a trustee of OMF, a Christian organisation that calls for "the urgent evangelisation of Asia's billions".

The report drew two types of protest - one from those asserting it was inexcusable even to suggest there was an issue here, and another from the Quakers denying a claim in the story that "all Christian charities try to convert people".

But it is clear from discussions with organisations founded on Christian principles that proselytising is a live issue that is under constant discussion, if only because some funding organisations will not give grants unless they are sure the recipient will work with all faith groups.

Blue-rinse ladies

Dominic Nutt, a spokesman for Christian Aid, says: "Let's be completely honest - the name Christian Aid can bring to mind images of blue-rinse ladies in dusty halls."

In view of this, the charity has named its website aimed at young would-be campaigners 'Pressure Works', and its children's website 'Global Gang'.

Nutt explains: "It's not supposed to be a Trojan horse. Pressure Works isn't aimed specifically at either Christians or non-Christians. But it's true that young people surfing the net may be more inclined to visit a site called Pressure Works than one called Christian Aid."

Although its name might not be seen as cool by some teenagers, Christian Aid is not concerned enough to contemplate a name change. Nutt says: "That would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. We are trusted throughout the world, including Muslim countries such as Afghanistan, where most of our workers are also Muslim. It would be foolhardy to compromise that."

One clear benefit that a faith-based charity can reap from its relationship with the church is that it has a ready-built communications network that extends into local communities. In Zimbabwe, this has helped Christian Aid reach even isolated communities despite the threat posed by Robert Mugabe's brutal regime. And in the case of Cafod, it forms the basis for its fundraising work.

"When we have an emergency appeal, we go to the local parishes and ask priests to mention it in their sermons, then distribute Cafod envelopes," explains Fiona Callister, head of media at Cafod. "We have a very strong support base in the Catholic community, which is incredibly generous."

When setting up overseas projects, Cafod will first try to establish a partnership with the local equivalent. Callister says: "The majority of our partners are Catholic, but we have a strong relationship with Islamic Relief in Indonesia, for example. Our motivation for being there may be faith-based, but the religion of our beneficiaries has nothing to do with it."

This sentiment is echoed by Andrea Stephens, spokeswoman from World Vision.

"One of our key focuses is our child sponsorship scheme, which caters for children of all religions on the scheme. Our work may be shaped by our Christian roots, but we are not a proselytising organisation."

World Vision even distributed prayer mats to Muslim victims of the tsunami and is helping to rebuild a mosque in Banda Aceh. But while the charity has employees of different faiths, it has some positions that are reserved for Christians, where it is felt the job requires it. Under the Employment Equality (Religion or Belief) Regulations 2004, it is unlawful to treat another person less favourably on the grounds of that person's religion.

There is a defence that being of a particular religion or belief is a genuine and determining occupational requirement, but this may be difficult to prove should a failed candidate wish to take the matter further.

The position of chief executive at NCH, which was established by a Methodist minister, was open only to Methodists until 1990. Reverend William Lynn, the charity's director of pastoral care, says that this requirement was scrapped for purely practical reasons. He adds: "As the charity grew larger and more complex, it was decided that we needed to cast the net further. It was not a case of being seen to take a certain stance. If anyone takes an honest look at our work, they will see that our relationship with the Methodist Church only enhances what we do."

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register
Already registered?
Sign in

Before commenting please read our rules for commenting on articles.

If you see a comment you find offensive, you can flag it as inappropriate. In the top right-hand corner of an individual comment, you will see 'flag as inappropriate'. Clicking this prompts us to review the comment. For further information see our rules for commenting on articles.

comments powered by Disqus