Afghanistan aid workers' deaths highlights delicate position of Christian-affiliated groups
The killing of 10 aid workers with the International Assistance Mission in Afghanistan underscores the suspicion Christian-affiliated groups can face from some Afghans and government opponents. Such groups point to codes of conduct they follow in the country.
The murder of an international medical aid team in Afghanistan has driven home the delicate position of Christian-affiliated organizations operating in the country.Skip to next paragraph
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While focused on humanitarian work, not religious instruction, such groups sometimes face suspicion by Afghans and manipulation by antigovernment elements.
The 10-member team was gunned down Thursday after providing medical care in remote villages in northeastern Afghanistan. A Taliban spokesman claimed they were killed for spying and trying to convert Muslims. The team was assembled by the International Assistance Mission (IAM), a group that describes itself as an international nonprofit Christian charitable organization.
"Our faith motivates and inspires us – but we do not proselytize," said IAM director Dirk Frans at a press conference in Kabul Monday.
Christian-affiliated aid groups, including IAM, work in Afghanistan under self-imposed international codes of conduct that forbid using aid to further a religious standpoint. This has largely shielded Christian-affiliated groups from being targeted over religion, but both the Taliban and politicians have tried recently to pin the "proselytizer" label on such foreigners.
"So far, the large majority of Afghans, educated or not, had absolutely no problem in having Christian organizations providing assistance, as long as they did not get involved in religious matters," says Laurent Saillard, head of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief in Kabul. "But now I am afraid this is changing."
Mr. Saillard explains that even under the former Taliban government it was better to be seen as a Christian than an agnostic or atheist – marks of communism in Afghan eyes.
Christianity now a useful wedge
However, those now wanting to divide the international community from the Afghan people see Christianity as a useful wedge.
Saillard cites a recent case of two international nongovernmental organizations suspended in May over allegations of converting Afghans. The accusations were aired by a television channel tied to opposition politician Burhanuddin Rabbani.
Saillard says the two groups were falsely accused by the TV channel in order to bolster the religious credentials of an upstart politician in Mr. Rabbani's coalition and to embarrass a political enemy in the Karzai government.
The two organizations – Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid – have been cleared by the Karzai government and allowed to resume their aid work. And in an interview with The New York Times, the TV station's director admitted the report was merely raising suspicions after seeing the two groups had "church" in their names.
Indeed, given the sensitivity of their names, both groups had been using abbreviations – CWS and NCA – as much as possible, says John Nduna, general secretary of ACT Alliance, an umbrella group of 100 church-related humanitarian groups.
With a group like NCA, he says, there can be misunderstandings that it's a church when in fact "the only thing it has to do with the church is the fundraising."
One Christian-affiliated aid group in Afghanistan says it's well understood among the donors in the pews that their group isn't proselytizing. And same for the Afghans they serve: "We are incredibly explicit that we don't proselytize, and anyone who does, if they are an ex-pat, will be on the next plane out of here."
They say they have experienced little animosity – just a few cases of people unhappy with their portion of aid deciding to play the religion card. Both this group and IAM say they won't be leaving because of Thursday's massacre.