JAKARTA, Indonesia, Jan. 14 -- The Virginia-based missionary group WorldHelp, which announced this week that it planned to place 300 Muslim "tsunami orphans" from the battered Indonesian province of Aceh in a Christian children's home, never had possession of any of the children, according to an Indonesian clergyman identified by the organization as its local partner.
Henry Lantang, a Protestant minister in eastern Indonesia, said the group had not taken any steps to gain custody of the children. He said that shortly after the Dec. 26 disaster, he had read on a popular Indonesian news Web site, detik.com, that 300 children were waiting at the airport in Banda Aceh, the provincial capital, for transport to the national capital, Jakarta. Lantang said he e-mailed that information to a friend in Virginia.
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"I only quoted that in my e-mail. I did not say we already had hold of the 300 children," Lantang said in a telephone interview from his home in Manado on Sulawesi island.
The friend gave the information to WorldHelp, which contacted Lantang, he said. During the following days, Lantang said he corresponded with Eric Vess, a WorldHelp official, sending him about five e-mails concerning the situation in Aceh. Vess did not return telephone calls placed to his office Friday.
"I never mentioned we had already took hold of the 300 in any of my e-mails. I was pretty clear in my e-mails that we didn't do anything," Lantang recalled. He added that he did not know the identities of any of the children or their whereabouts.
Last weekend, WorldHelp launched an urgent fundraising appeal among evangelical Christians in the United States. "The Aceh people strongly and even violently oppose other religions. They are unreached with the gospel," the group said on its Web site. "If we can place [the Muslim orphans] in a Christian children's home, their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people."
The Rev. Vernon Brewer, president of WorldHelp, which is based in Forest, Va., told The Washington Post on Tuesday that his group had raised $70,000 and hoped to collect $350,000 more. He said the children had already been airlifted to Jakarta with the permission of the Indonesian government, which he said had been "explicitly" told that the children would be raised in a Christian environment.
After The Post published an article Thursday about WorldHelp's fundraising effort and quoted an Indonesian official saying no permission to move the children had been granted, Brewer told news agencies that his group had abandoned its plan.
In an e-mail to supporters Thursday, Brewer said the children had never been moved. He said WorldHelp had changed its Web site and halted its fundraising appeal after learning Wednesday that Indonesian authorities would not allow the children to be placed in a non-Muslim orphanage.
Brewer's e-mail said WorldHelp thought it had the Indonesian government's approval because of a report from the group's primary partners in the country, whom he identified as Lantang, the minister, and his son Roy. Brewer blamed the program's suspension on a backlash in Aceh, which, like the rest of the country, is predominantly Muslim.
But Lantang said the plan had never been that far along and that Indonesian officials had never been contacted for permission.
Lantang said he and his son had initially envisioned moving several dozen orphans from Aceh to Jakarta but learned that the government had restricted the movement of children from the province soon after the tsunami. The restriction was largely to prevent human traffickers from taking advantage of the situation and selling the children or forcing them into prostitution. Lantang said his son, now in Aceh, decided to focus his efforts on providing relief assistance to survivors.
"Our plan after the disaster in Aceh was for our organization to take some children into our orphan home. . . . We're not going that route anymore," Lantang said.
Lantang said he was unsure whether WorldHelp's claims were the result of a misunderstanding. A graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary, Lantang, 59, runs a Bible school in Manado and said he ministers in a nearby camp to Christian refugees from domestic Indonesian conflicts in central Sulawesi and the Moluccas islands. His son Roy, 27, is a U.S. citizen and graduated from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, he said.
WorldHelp now is seeking other Indonesian orphans to be placed in a Christian home and will make every effort to ensure that the $70,000 it has raised is used for the purposes that donors intended, Brewer said in his e-mail to supporters.
Though WorldHelp retracted its earlier announcement that it was moving the Acehnese children to a Christian orphanage, the proposal sparked a furor in Indonesia. The widely circulating Republika newspaper published a story about the group's plan on the front page of its Friday editions under the headline: "U.S. missionary brought 300 Acehnese children."
That article was cited by an imam leading Friday prayers at a large downtown mosque in Jakarta. During agitated remarks about the Aceh relief effort, he said Muslims had to be vigilant because Christians and Jews would never be satisfied until they had converted them all.
Staff writer Alan Cooperman in Washington and special correspondent Noor Huda Ismail contributed to this report.