The Virginia-based missionary group WorldHelp has dropped its plans to place 300 Muslim "tsunami orphans" in a Christian children's home, the group's president, the Rev. Vernon Brewer, told news agencies yesterday.
The children were still in the Muslim province of Aceh and had not been airlifted to Jakarta, Indonesia's capital, according to an e-mail under Brewer's name circulating yesterday among his supporters.
The Rev. Vernon Brewer says Indonesia refused to let the children be taken to a Christian orphanage.
Biology Book Stickers Ruled Unconstitutional (The Washington Post, Jan 14, 2005)
(Associated Press, Jan 13, 2005)
In These Parts, Republicans Have Company (The Washington Post, Jan 13, 2005)
Indonesian Children Go Back to School (The Washington Post, Jan 12, 2005)
In Celebration of Jefferson's Bill, the Freedom to Argue (The Washington Post, Jan 9, 2005)
More Religion Stories
In an interview Tuesday for an article published in yesterday's Washington Post, Brewer said that the children already had been airlifted to Jakarta and that the Indonesian government had given permission for them to be placed in a Christian children's home. Brewer did not return calls from The Post yesterday to his home, office and cell phone to address the discrepancy.
In the e-mail, as well as in statements given to Reuters and Agence France-Presse, Brewer said WorldHelp had raised $70,000 to place 50 of the children in a Christian orphanage but had halted its efforts when it learned on Wednesday that the Indonesian government would not allow it.
"Once we became aware that the government had refused to let these children be placed in a Christian home, we immediately stopped all fundraising efforts for the remaining 250 Indonesian orphaned children and appeals were removed from our website," the e-mail said.
The group's plan to raise children from Muslim families in a Christian home struck a nerve in Indonesia, which had regulations in place even before the tsunami requiring orphans to be raised by people of their own religion. This rule was adopted in large part to ensure that Muslim children were not converted.
In response to fears that Acehnese tsunami orphans would be trafficked, the Indonesian Department of Social Affairs adopted a further prohibition on people taking children out of the province. Officials said the only exemptions were for relatives.
Despite these restrictions, radical Muslim activists in Indonesia have warned against the operations of some Christian relief groups, arguing that their ultimate motive is to convert the Acehnese away from Islam, which has long been a part of the province's cultural identity. Though most Indonesians do not share the radicals' extreme agenda, these concerns have resonated among many in the country, who remain suspicious of foreigners and particularly Westerners.
In Brewer's e-mail yesterday, which was forwarded to The Post by a WorldHelp supporter, he said WorldHelp thought it had the Indonesian government's permission for its plans because of a report from the charity's Christian partners in Indonesia, Henry and Roy Lantang.
On Jan. 3, he said, the Lantangs sent WorldHelp, based in Forest, Va., near Lynchburg, a message saying they had "just received news that approximately 300 children under the age of 12 who had become orphans are at the airport in Banda Aceh and Medan waiting to be transported to Jakarta." The Lantangs added that the "rescuers of these children" had issued an open invitation to "any organization or family willing to adopt or take care of" the children.
"It was our understanding that this was done with the permission of the Indonesian government," Brewer's e-mail said. But because of "a huge backlash from the Islamic community in Aceh, the government of Indonesia is now refusing to allow the orphaned children to be placed in any non-Muslim homes," the e-mail said.
Reuters and AFP quoted Brewer as saying WorldHelp learned of the Indonesian government's refusal Wednesday, the day the fundraising appeal was taken off the group's Web site, and the day before The Post's article was published about the group's plans.
Before WorldHelp changed its Web site, it contained an appeal for funds that described the Aceh people as "strict Sunni Muslims" who "have been very instrumental in spreading Islam throughout Indonesia and other parts of Southeast Asia." Normally, it said, "Banda Aceh is closed to foreigners and closed to the gospel. But, because of this catastrophe, our partners there are earning the right to be heard and providing entrance for the gospel." The fundraising appeal went on to say that WorldHelp was working with Christian partners in Indonesia who want to "plant Christian principles as early as possible" in the 300 Muslim children.
"These children are homeless, destitute, traumatized, orphaned, with nowhere to go, nowhere to sleep and nothing to eat. If we can place them in a Christian children's home, their faith in Christ could become the foothold to reach the Aceh people," it said.
In the message yesterday, Brewer said he makes "no apologies for the fact that World Help is a Christian organization." He said the organization is seeking other orphaned children in need of a home and is making every effort to ensure that all funds raised for tsunami children are used as designated.
"We're really not trying to proselytize," Brewer said in an interview with Reuters. "It's no different than what Mother Teresa did by taking Hindu orphan children and placing them in a Roman Catholic children's home in Calcutta, and she won the Nobel Peace Prize for doing that."
Correspondent Alan Sipress contributed to this report from Jakarta.