Aid workers could add to woes overseas

Saturday, January 5, 2002

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- As a Christian missionary in the Islamic nation of Mauritania in North Africa, Sister Claire Rheaume was free to share her religion with others.

Still, she was careful in her 15 years there to discuss her faith only with close friends, and she never signed the cross before meals at restaurants.

"We try to be so discreet," said Rheaume, who now works in Waltham, Mass., as a nurse for elderly missionaries returning from abroad. "It wasn't denying your faith. It's the respect that you have for the country."

Rheaume admires the devotion of American aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, but she question whether their lack of discretion will make it more difficult for other Christian missionaries working in Muslim countries.

Curry and Mercer were jailed in Afghanistan with six other foreign aid workers on charges of preaching Christianity, an offense which was punishable by death under the country's Taliban rule.

After the workers were rescued by U.S. Special Forces in November, Curry and Mercer made the talk show rounds in their home country and admitted to preaching Christianity.

"Common sense kind of tells you this will set everybody on edge, but only time will tell," said Kathleen Flake, assistant professor of American religious history at the Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville. "To the extent other countries are suspicious of our motives, they will be more suspicious."

Opportunity to share faith

Curry, who grew up in suburban Nashville, and Mercer of Vienna, Va., said they visited an Afghan home and showed the family a religious video because the family was curious and they wanted to share their faith.

They said they never tried to convert anyone.

Curry, 30, said she understood the risks of teaching Christianity before traveling to Afghanistan, a poor country with overwhelming need.

Udo Stolte, director of Shelter Now International, the German organization which sponsored the women, said workers are not discouraged from discussing Christianity when asked about it by an Afghan. Discussing religion simply is part of the culture, and declining to do so could be offensive to some Afghans, he said.

Curious about Christians

Missionaries for the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board, the world's largest Protestant mission organization with 5,100 missionaries in 185 countries, are encouraged to convert people in the nations they are visiting, spokesman Mark Kelly said.

But the 3,800 missionaries sent abroad by one of the 650 mission organizations working as part of the U.S. Catholic Mission Association are coached to take a different approach, executive director Sister Rosanne Rustemeyer said.

Christians can show others the virtues of their faith by preaching in countries where it is permitted, or by quietly doing health, education and relief work, Rustemeyer said.

"We really believe that God uses our presence as witness," she said.

Dr. J. Dudley Woodberry, professor of Islamic studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., advises Christians working in Muslim nations to be discreet. He said aid workers should share their faith only with close friends. Even addressing good-natured curiosity about Christianity can be dangerous, he said.

"It varies considerably from country to country, and it varies within the same country because there's sort of a fuzzy line between proselytizing and just being a friend answering questions."

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