Editorial: Aid and Afghanistan

The murder of Dr Karen Woo sharpens the dilemma of Christianity-based aid agencies in Muslim countries, says Stephen Cook

What should be the role of Christianity-based aid charities in Muslim countries, especially those where there is conflict? The question has been brought into renewed focus by the terrible murder of 10 aid workers in Afghanistan at the weekend, including the British doctor Karen Woo.

Among agencies that consider that they cannot offer aid without also preaching the gospel, there cannot be many still willing to operate in Afghanistan or Iraq. They are probably also wary of operating in Muslim countries where there is official disapproval or prohibition of Christian proselytising.

But some Christian charities have a strong record of delivering aid without religious strings, and operate freely and effectively in many Muslim and Hindu countries. They have also continued to work in war zones, and the latest tragedy is no doubt causing them to review their position urgently.

There are two specific problems in Afghanistan. One is that it appears to make no difference to the Taliban whether a charity proselytises or not – if it is Christian (or perhaps just western), it is evidently now deemed an enemy and a target.

The other is that many western aid organisations – both Christianity-based and non-denominational - receive some funding from governments involved in the Nato war effort in Afghanistan. To the Taliban, this appears to mean that the organisation concerned is an agent of the occupying forces, and no amount of  argument is likely to convince them otherwise.

Aid and development charities will make their own decisions, according to their own lights, about whether to leave, modify what they do, or carry on resolutely as before. But their mission of relieving poverty and suffering would be immensely eased by Nato’s speedy disentanglement from the futile struggle in Afghanistan.

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