NASHVILLE, Tenn. – In the aftermath of war, Iraq is expected to face a massive humanitarian crisis, with hunger, homelessness and disease threatening the nation's 24 million people.
U.S.-based Christian relief organizations, including a Nashville group affiliated with the Churches of Christ, are prepared to help. Even before the war began, many started gathering medicine, food, blankets and other supplies for Iraqis in need.
Critics, however, already are raising concerns that evangelical relief groups may try to use humanitarian aid to make inroads in Muslim countries.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations, a Washington advocacy group, said it was especially upset to hear that the relief agency Samaritan's Purse, run by the Rev. Franklin Graham, planned to work in Iraq. Graham has called Islam "a very evil and wicked religion."
"It's particularly disturbing that a group headed by a man who openly states he believes the faith of Islam is evil would enter into a Muslim country in the wake of an invading army," council spokesman Ibrahim Hooper said.
But like most agencies, Samaritan's Purse says it won't proselytize.
"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," Graham wrote in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times' Thursday editions.
"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."
Samaritan's Purse is prepared to provide drinking water for up to 20,000 Iraqi families, build temporary shelter for more than 4,000 families and supply packages of household items for 5,000 families. The organization also has medical kits designed to meet the needs of 100,000 Iraqis for three months.
Many U.S. relief groups have already been working in the region for years, focusing on building relationships with aid organizations and local community groups in the Mideast.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief is raising funds for Iraq, but its chief executive officer, Paul Dirdak, said it will funnel aid through established groups that do not evangelize.
Catholic Relief Services, the charitable arm of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has aided the Iraqi people continuously since 1999. The agency helped local Catholic organizations with supplies and other assistance prior to the start of the war.
Church World Service, which has worked in Iraq since 1991, is among organizations providing hand soap and detergent to Iraqis to prevent the spread of disease. It is the relief agency for the National Council of Churches, comprised of Protestant and Orthodox denominations.
The missionary agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has provided aid in the Mideast for years, has distributed blankets, diapers and infant formula to refugees entering Jordan. The group is ready to feed up to 10,000 people a day if needed.
At the Nashville headquarters of Healing Hands International, workers had been assembling hundreds of health-and-hygiene kits for Afghanistan. Now, the group is drawing up plans to help Iraqis.
The Healing Hands kits contain items such as soap, shampoo, bandages, washcloths and toothbrushes — but no spiritual materials such as Bibles or Christian tracts.
Healing Hands spokesman Trent Wheeler said the approach of Christian relief groups has shifted. "It used to be primarily, 'Preach, preach, preach,'" he said.
The new strategy is to help first and explain Christianity later, Wheeler explained. "People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care," he said.
Joe Smith, Healing Hands' director of operations, said the aid has another benefit: showing that Americans care about people overseas.
"Humanitarian aid goes a long way toward showing people in other countries that we're not just after Iraq's oil, not just out to set up a new army base in Afghanistan or something like that," Smith said.
Kevin King, a manager for the Mennonite Central Committee based in Akron, Pa., recalled a conversation he had with an Iraqi farmer last year when he tried to explain what Mennonites believe.
King's organization, which has provided about $6.4 million in aid to Iraq since 1990, had helped the farmer improve his tomato crop. When the two spoke about peace and religion, the farmer did not understand the Mennonite faith and suggested, "Maybe we could become Muslim Mennonites."
King said it brought home the lesson that talking about Christianity was sometimes less effective than just acting Christian.
"In these times of need, the food, the blankets, the tents and the relief kits speak louder than words," King said. "I guess it reminds me what Francis of Assisi used to say: 'Preach the gospel at all times and if necessary, use words."'