Missionaries viewed as an asset, but sometimes a puzzle, by the United States – .

Missionaries viewed as an asset, but sometimes a puzzle, by the United States – .

Washington (AFP)

The kidnapping of 17 missionaries in Haiti reinforces a difficult situation for Washington – religious groups are often seen as an asset, going where many dare not, but they can also find themselves in great difficulty.

Gangs that brazenly rule much of the western hemisphere’s poorest nation over the weekend kidnapped 17 American and Canadian missionaries, including children, the latest attack which appeared to be aimed at collecting ransoms.

The United States had already issued its highest level of warning against travel to Haiti.

But religious groups, who believe they are doing God’s work, are also frontline partners when the United States needs a presence in the world’s most dangerous places.

Since the presidency of George W. Bush, the United States has funneled an increasing amount of foreign aid to faith-based groups, a once controversial practice that has become widely accepted in all administrations.

Religious charities have long roots in Haiti, where the abducted missionaries came from Christian Aid Ministries, an organization of Mennonites and friends based in Ohio.

“If you want to help set up clinics in South Sudan or Haiti, you don’t do it with the government, you do it with an NGO,” said Melani McAlister, professor of American studies at the University. George Washington.

“And American religious groups are absolutely an important and important part of this NGO network,” she said.

Todd Johnson, co-director of the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, said long-term missionaries typically develop language skills and cultural knowledge – along with the proper paperwork – to function effectively.

“It is to the benefit of the US government that they succeed,” he said.

A group of missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints in a parade July 4, 2018 in Provo, Utah GEORGE FREY GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / AFP / File

He said there should be no difference in the government’s response if the abductees are missionaries or, for example, businessmen detained for money.

– Seen ‘as a problem’ –

The State Department says it doesn’t treat missionaries any differently from other U.S. citizens who need help overseas.

South Korean protesters shout slogans during a 2007 protest against the Saem-Mul Presbyterian Church which sent 23 kidnapped missionaries to Afghanistan CHOI WON-SUK AFP / File

But missionaries frequently sparked major diplomatic incidents.

Knox Thames, a former State Department official specializing in international religious freedom, said American diplomats are often unaware of the existence of missionaries, who have no obligation to share their beliefs or their whereabouts.

“However, American embassies often see missionaries as a problem,” he said.

“They could offend local sensitivities, break anti-proselytizing laws or find themselves kidnapped like in Haiti. “

A nun of the Missionaries of Charity after participating in a special prayer to mark the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa at the Mother House in Calcutta on September 5, 2021
A nun of the Missionaries of Charity after participating in a special prayer to mark the anniversary of the death of Mother Teresa at the Mother House in Calcutta on September 5, 2021 Dibyangshu SARKAR AFP / Dossier

The Islamic world is particularly sensitive to attempts at conversion. In a high-profile case, 23 Christian missionaries from South Korea were kidnapped in 2007 by the Taliban in Afghanistan, freed only after Seoul agreed to withdraw its troops from the US-led mission.

Among American citizens, Turkey’s arrest in a nationwide crackdown of Andrew Brunson, a pastor who had resided for years and had become a famous cause in evangelical Christian circles, led former President Donald Trump to 2018 to increase tariffs to guarantee his release.

Russia has been criticized by the United States for banning most missionaries. Minefields even exist with friendly nations like India, allowing foreign missionaries to enter only if they are not proselytizing.

Missionaries can also find themselves far from help, as in the case of John Chau, the American who was killed in 2018 by an isolated tribal group while seeking to bring Christianity to a remote Indian island in the Andaman Sea.

The kidnapped Mennonites were not believed to be seeking converts in Haiti, a country already largely Christian, albeit Catholic.

But proselytizing is an integral part of the faith for many American Christians, especially members of the Church of Jesus Christ and Latter-day Saints, which encourages young men to work overseas as missionaries.

According to the church, some 54,000 missionaries served around the world last year, with clean-faced young men on street corners sometimes becoming the first encounters of strangers with Americans.

The US government, while partnering with faith groups, says it only funds aid and not proselytizing.

Johnson, the missionary scholar, said most Christians agree with this.

“Ninety percent – maybe more – of Christian aid and development are very susceptible to proselytizing because it just doesn’t work well,” he said.

“From a Christian perspective, it’s part of the Christian witness to just help people,” he said. “If people care about more than that, that’s fine, but if they just help, that’s fine too. “


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