By William Fisher
For the fundamentalist wings of Christianity and Islam the South Asian tsunami has meant very different things. Some Christian groups have seen it as an opportunity to thank God for the deaths of sinners, or to use aid as a cover for proselytizing among people of other faiths. For some Muslims, it was “punishment from Allah” of ”infidels, invaders and occupiers, headed by the U.S.”
The website of the Topeka, Kansas, Westboro Baptist Church, thanked God for the tsunami and “any gay Swedes who were killed while vacationing there.” The website also lauded God for killing Americans in the tsunami, as well as Americans killed by jetliners on Sept. 11. “Thank god for all dead Swedes!!!…God Hates Fags (homosexuals), God Hates America, God Hates Canada”, it continued.
The website explained: “Fags have a three point agenda: 1) decriminalize sodomy, 2) add fags to the protected classes as victims like blacks, and 3) criminalize Gospel preaching against fags. Sweden's doom is now irreversible! Sweden has drawn to it the wrath and mocking of God!”
Some Christian missionary groups were accused of using the disaster as an excuse to proselytize. The “Chicago Tribune” reported from India that “Christian evangelists arrived at a disaster area wearing fluorescent yellow T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Believers Church' on the back and ‘Gospel for Asia' on the front.” They gave each tsunami survivor a sleeping mat, a plate, a sari, a 55-pound bag of rice and, in the bottom of a white plastic bag proclaiming "Believers Church Tsunami Relief,'' a book containing biblical verses warning against the dangers of alcohol. They also set up an orphanage for 108 children, including many Hindus, and asked the children to recite Christian prayers six times a day.
Another U.S. group, the International Bible Society, announced plans to send 100,000 Christian texts, including a book translated into Thai, "When Your Whole World Changes,'' to survivors, including those in Thailand.
Church leaders in Sri Lanka appealed to Christian groups not to proselytize. The National Christian Council of Sri Lanka issued a statement expressing “deep concern” at reports that some groups are trying to “exploit the tragedy to further their own ideologies”.
Muslim organizations agreed. "This is a reminder. Do not do this in this kind of situation," Dien Syamsuddin, secretary-general of the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, said after Friday prayers in the main mosque of the provincial capital, Banda Aceh.
He also condemned reports the U.S.-based welfare group, World Help, planned to adopt 300 Acehnese orphans and raise them in a Christian children's home. The plan was abandoned because of widespread criticism.
The International Mission Board responded by saying, “Critics often accuse evangelicals of seizing on tragedies, wars and natural or man-made disasters to rush into places once off-limits to Christians. They don’t care about the victims’ physical needs or long-term welfare, the critics say; they just want to save souls and make converts...Christians walking in the love of God, however, care about bodies and souls. They weep with those who weep, heal the sick, feed the hungry – and yes, look for opportunities to share the good news of Christ wherever it hasn’t been heard.”
But the proselytizing was two-sided. An Islamic militant group in Aceh recruited members as it collected bodies; other Islamic groups handed out thousands of Qurans in relief camps.
From the Islamic world also came criticism of other Muslims. A prominent Islamist Website, “Jihad Unspun”, said, “The tsunami struck Thailand for supporting the Christian crusaders in the war on terror. The other nations on the Indian Ocean that suffered death and destruction were similarly deserving -- India for its "polytheism" and Sri Lanka for giving its full backing to the Christian Crusaders inside the White House."
In Egypt, an editorial in the government weekly, “Akhbar Al-Yawn”, noted that the Arab Doctors Association declined to assist tsunami victims because the disaster is seen as "punishment from Allah." The Association justified its position by saying that this earthquake was “divine punishment because of the Muslims' oppression by the infidels, invaders and occupiers, headed by the U.S.”
Ibrahim Al-Bashar, an advisor to Saudi Arabia's justice minister, explained on
Saudi television, “These countries, in which these things occurred -- don't they refrain from adopting Allah's law, which is a form of heresy? Whoever does not act according to Allah's law is a heretic, that's what Allah said in the Koran.”
A Saudi cleric blamed infidel tourists for the tsunami. It happened “when fornicators and corrupt people from all over the world come to commit fornication and sexual perversion," professor Sheik Fawzan al-Fawzan of al-Imam University told Saudi Arabia's ”al-Majd TV”.
In Morocco, the newspaper "Attajdid" called the Tsunami a "serious warning to Morocco that it has become a destination for sexual tourism."
Nor was the disaster lacking for conspiracy theories. An Egyptian opposition weekly, “Al Usbua”, claimed the earthquake was a result of a joint India-Israel-U.S. nuclear experiment that brought about the movement of the tectonic plates located underneath the ocean. The paper said the experiment’s goal was a U.S.-Israel attempt to put an “end to humanity”.
Another website, “The ShiaChat.com”, cited several Muslim clerics as saying that Zionist and American investments in Thailand’s beaches and the prosperous prostitution industry there prompted the earthquake that caused the tsunami.
However, these views appear to be far from the norm among either Islamic or Christian groups.
Some religious observers faulted many of America’s ‘mainstream’ Christian organizations for their slow reaction to the tsunami. As of December 30, four days after the disaster, the largest of these groups still had not posted a word about the disaster on their websites. They included the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, the Christian Coalition, Focus on the Family, Concerned Women for America, and the Coral Ridge Ministries. These organizations are led by some of the country’s leading televangelists, including the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. James Dobson, and Rev. Pat Robertson. While huge relief efforts were getting underway throughout the world, their websites continued to fight against same-sex marriage, a woman's right to choose, and embryonic stem cell research.
But by mid-January, however, organizations representing Christian, Muslim, Jewish, and other faiths were conducting active appeals and raising substantial funds.