Ethics: Jesus swathed in relief blankets

Would Jesus want his word spread with rice and lentils? Tom Palakudiyil, who has run Christian Aid's response to four emergencies in Asia, asks if it's really Christian to mix aid and Bibles.

In February this year, on the way to Choldhari, a village on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands still covered by two feet of water six weeks after the tsunami, we drove past a banner that proclaimed "Jesus saves".

The banner was displayed prominently on the road leading to a relief camp, most of whose residents were Hindus. These people were there not to hear about Jesus, but to survive the immediate aftermath of the tsunami and start putting their shattered lives back together.

Alleviating pain and suffering is an important aspect of the Christian call. Religion and faith help people face disasters and cope with the trauma that calamities bring. In the case of many tsunami survivors, religions - Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity - have helped bring closure to the loss and bereavement created by the tsunami.

However, every time I come across a display of religious conviction such as the banner on the road to Choldhari, I wonder how such manifestations help alleviate the suffering of people whose lives have been torn apart.

Proselytising groups rush in to virtually every modern disaster zone. I witnessed Christian organisations include Bible tracts with the relief distributed to cyclone victims in Orissa in 1999, and other groups trying to convince communities traumatised by the earthquake in Gujarat in 2001 that Jesus is "the way, the truth and the life".

Would Jesus agree to be turned into a product to be marketed, wrapped in a relief blanket and have his word mixed with rice and lentils distributed in the relief camps? I firmly believe not. I am forced to question the morality of using aid to win over to Christianity a traumatised and vulnerable group.

The question assumes even greater gravity in places where Christianity is not the major religion, let alone the only one. In many of the countries in Asia and the Middle East where Christian Aid works, Christianity is the religion of a small minority. They live side by side with people of other faiths - Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, the religions of indigenous communities.

In such a multi-faith context, an aggressive display of a group's commitment to Christianity flagrantly disregards people's own strongly held personal beliefs and risks exploiting their vulnerability in a crisis. In Iraq and Afghanistan, small numbers of proselytising Christian groups - particularly from the US - have jeopardised our safety and that of our partners by associating us, a faith-based organisation bearing the title 'Christian', with such groups.

For two decades I have worked in south Asia, the world's most disaster-prone region. In disaster after disaster, I have seen that community effort is essential for people's recovery. But when help and support is distributed along religious (or political, or ethnic) lines, religion that should unite and strengthen a community instead discriminates and divides.

This is what we are seeing today, across the tsunami-hit regions of south India and Sri Lanka. Some aid agencies are using religion as a tool to gain an advantage over others. This is nothing but a caricature of the message of Jesus. It contradicts the parable of the good Samaritan, whose help came with no strings attached and without the need for a thank you card from the traveller he rescued.

A few years ago, while visiting our partners in western Rajasthan, India, we saw that Christian Aid's banner was absent. Instead, banners bore the names of the women's groups that had organised the meetings and the village committees that were overseeing the development work to which Christian Aid contributed. For us this was not a sign of a marketing failure, but of the success of our partners and of our commitment to humanitarian principles.

Contributing to restoring people's lives and setting them on the road to recovery and rehabilitation is the real meaning of witnessing Christ and his message.

Christian Aid works with people regardless of their religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender or race as a matter of principle and as part of its formal commitment to the Red Cross and Red Crescent Code of Conduct, which governs how relief agencies operate in emergencies.

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