Firas Al-Atraqchi: A New War Shaping Up In Iraq?
Is a New War Shaping up in Iraq?
By Firas Al-Atraqchi
In the early weeks of 2003, a team of American, Jordanians, Iraqis and British charity workers quietly slipped into Jordan and anxiously awaited the opening salvo of the war in Iraq. Under the banner of working in accordance with the teachings of Jesus Christ, the group, known as Samaritan's Purse brought along technicians and specialists who would enter Iraq after the anticipated fall of former Iraqi President Saddam's regime and begin to administer aid to the impoverished and war-stricken people of Iraq.
On the surface, this endeavour seems noble and humanitarian, but according to Islamic organizations in North America, the charity work is a cover for the proselytizing aims of Reverend Franklin Graham, Samaritan's Purse founder and spiritual leader.
North American Muslims charge that Samaritan's Purse may try to convert to Christianity those segments of Iraq's Muslim population who live in abject poverty and squalor and have been the most affected by punitive United Nations sanctions and years of war.
"There are a couple of concern's we have [about the trip], especially since Graham's statements late last year have made him an anti-Islamic bigot to Muslims worldwide," says Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, CAIR, based in Washington, D.C.
In the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Graham took to the airwaves laying blame on Islam as the spiritual foundation that helped launch the attacks on American shores. On the first day of Ramadhan, the Muslim holy month of fasting, in 2001, Graham said that "it wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn't Lutherans - it was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith. When you read the Koran and you read the verses from the Koran, it instructs the killing of the infidel, for those that are non-Muslim."
At the time, North American Muslim, Christian, and Jewish leaders chastised the reverend for his remarks; Graham defended his initial statements when he appeared on NBC's Nightly News late 2001:
"We're not attacking Islam but Islam has attacked us. The God of Islam is not the same God. He's not the son of God of the Christian or Judeo-Christian faith. It's a different God, and I believe it is a very evil and wicked religion."
The White House distanced itself from Graham's remarks. CAIR, however, took the position the reverend was misinformed and attempted to dialogue with Graham and invite him to a discussion on Islam, but they have since received no response.
Hassan believes the Graham's proposed humanitarian trip to Iraq will clearly not be in U.S. interests as it comes in the wake of an invading U.S. Army which has occupied Iraq.
"It strengthens the belief by some that this is a war against Islam," she added.
When contacted by this writer, Samaritan's Purse spokesperson Jeremy Blume declined to answer any questions, instead saying "At this time, due to safety concerns for our staff and those that they are helping the following link to information is all I can give you."
The link Blume referred to says "In response to requests from Christians in Iraq, with whom we've worked for many years, Samaritan's Purse plans to provide physical aid, including water, shelter, and medical supplies to as many Iraqi people as we can. The complexities of the current situation in the region, and the safety of our relief workers and the recipients of our aid make it difficult to provide further details with accuracy. At this time, we cannot predict what we will spend, how long we will be there, or precisely where we will be."
While Samaritan's Purse refuses to provide further information on their activities, Hassan believes that the evangelical group may have already slipped into Iraq after receiving the 'go-ahead' from U.S. forces.
"This so-called relief effort is taking advantage of the [U.S.] invasion of Iraq," says Asad Dean, producer of Radio Islam in Toronto.
"Everything about this trip is suspicious - the timing is questionable, the fact that Graham made derogatory statements against Islam, the fact that they will hand out Bibles with their humanitarian aid - it just adds to the suspicion that this is a crusade against Islam," he explained.
In an April 2nd column, Graham responded to accusations that he is proselytizing. "In Iraq, as is the case wherever we work, Samaritan's Purse will offer physical assistance to those who need it, with no strings attached. We don't have to preach in order to be a Christian relief organization; sometimes the best preaching we can do is simply being there with a cup of cold water, exhibiting Christ's spirit of serving others."
However, Samaritan's Purse's website mission statement seems to contradict Graham's recent explanations: "Since 1970, Samaritan's Purse has helped meet needs of people who are victims of war, poverty, natural disasters, disease, and famine with the purpose of sharing God's love through His Son, Jesus Christ. The organization serves the Church worldwide to promote the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ."
It is the promotion of the Gospel that has worried some U.S. officials. During the 1991 Gulf war, Graham appealed to then-U.S. President George Bush Sr. to have U.S. troops stationed in Saudi Arabia distribute tens of thousands of Bibles translated into Arabic to the people of the region. Bush rejected the appeal.
After 2001's disastrous earthquake in El Salvador, Samaritan's Purse was on hand to distribute humanitarian aid to displaced and homeless people. However, the press in El Salvador criticized the group for leading El Salvadorans in prayer before distributing aid and helping erect shelters, a project undertaken in cooperation with U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) funding.
In March 2001, USAID emphasized that Samaritan's Purse had to "maintain adequate and sufficient separation between its prayer sessions and its USAID- funded activities," to avoid the appearance that federal money was being used to finance proselytizing.
"If they are as ingenuous as they claim, let them send their aid and experts through a neutral organization that has not persistently defamed Islam," says Riad Saloojee, Executive Director of CAIR-Canada.
Saloojee wonders why various United Nations agencies, which have ample experience in Iraq, are no-politicized, and "non-opportunistic", were not consulted.
"The universal values of Islam support and encourage humanitarian aid, charity and alleviating the suffering of people in times of need. We do not have a problem with that at all," Saloojee explains. "However, these efforts should not be tied to religious opportunism."