Sat, Nov 15, 2003 - Page 9 News List

When Islamophobia comes wrapped in giftpaper

The world's largest children's Christmas project has a toxic agenda

By Giles Fraser  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

It all sounds innocent enough. Operation Christmas Child "is a unique ministry that brings Christmas joy, packed in gift-filled shoeboxes, to children around the world." Over the past 10 years, 24 million shoeboxes have been delivered, making it the world's largest children's Christmas project. Every US president since Ronald Reagan has packed a shoebox for Operation Christmas Child. In the UK, thousands of schools, churches and youth clubs are doing the same.

Some will fill their boxes with dried-out felt tip pens and discarded Barbie amputees. Others spend serious money on the latest GameBoy or Sony Walkman.

But what many parents and teachers don't know is that behind Operation Christmas Child is the evangelical charity Samaritan's Purse. Their aim is "the advancement of the Christian faith through educational projects and the relief of poverty."

And a particularly toxic version of Christianity it is. This is the same outfit that targeted eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was widely condemned for following US troops into Iraq to claim Muslims for Christ.

It's run by the Reverend Franklin Graham -- chosen by US George W. Bush to deliver the prayers at his presidential inauguration -- who has called Islam "a very wicked and evil religion." Graham, the son of the evangelist Billy Graham, is from the same school of thought as General William Boykin, US deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, who described America as waging a holy war against "the idol" of Islam's false god and "a guy called Satan" who "wants to destroy us as a Christian army."

Across the UK, children in multicultural schools are being encouraged to support a scheme that is, quite understandably, deeply offensive to Muslims. Under pressure from those who have complained that Operation Christmas Child is a way of promoting Christian fundamentalism through toys, evangelical literature will now be distributed alongside shoebox parcels from the UK rather than inside them -- as if this makes any real difference.

Little wonder that such organizations as the fire service in south Wales, which had allowed its depots to be used as collection points for shoeboxes, has decided to suspend its involvement. Other organizations are reconsidering their participation.

What is most resented about Samaritan's Purse is the way it links aid and evangelism.

"We have no problem with people going into a country to do evangelical work," said Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

"But when you mix humanitarian work in a war-torn country with evangelization you create a problem. You have desperate people and you have someone who has food in one hand and a Bible in another," Hassan said.

Christian missionaries in 19th-century India used to describe those who came to the mission stations simply for food as "rice Christians." This became a derogatory term for those driven to accept Christianity out of hunger rather than genuine conviction. The accusation is that groups such as Samaritan's Purse are creating a new generation of rice Christians in the Middle East.

How might they be stopped? The answer is not quite as simple as erecting a firewall between Christian evangelism and social action. For Christianity is not neatly divisible into theory and practice; it is a form of praxis. Belief and action are ultimately inseparable.

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