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ER=Emergency relief

The embattled Franklin Graham sends aid to Iraq despite a welter of hand-wringing over what it will do to Muslim-Christian relations

Diar Ali's emergency room has eight vinyl beds with no sheets. Green curtains hang limp between the beds, a fig's leaf of privacy for the Shiite women who arrive heavily veiled.

This hospital is one of the biggest in Baghdad, but it's never had the reputation for being one of the best. Private hospitals, like the Catholic hospital in East Baghdad, are more prestigious. And favorites of Saddam's former inner circle, like Olympic Hospital, run by his son Uday, catered only to the rich and favored. In prewar days Olympic routinely imported specialists from France.

Shoddy facilities did not prevent locals from overwhelming Dr. Ali's government-run facility during the war. It became a reception center-and a dumping ground-for Baghdad's dead and wounded. The neighborhood that surrounds it saw some of the worst bombardment; U.S. forces dropped four bunker-busters in April not far away at a restaurant where they believed Saddam was meeting.

The hospital itself was hit directly by shells, completely destroying the third floor of one building in the complex. Residents looted furniture. Wards operated without desks, chairs, and gurneys. Still, doctors accepted wounded and, when the water ran out, moved from patient to patient with no way to wash blood from their hands. Volunteers buried corpses in the courtyard-up to 20 one day-because there was nowhere else to move them.

Olympic already has received a postwar makeover from a wealthy Gulf state sheikh. But in West Baghdad, Dr. Ali's 1,200-bed facility continues to clock 24-hour shifts with doctors who typically are paid $20 a month and who perform X-rays out of a single room using rusted equipment.

Dr. Ali and his colleagues hope the days of both battle and hardship will soon be a memory. A hefty shipment of supplies and equipment arrived on June 23-a bequest from Samaritan's Purse, the also-embattled relief organization headed by Franklin Graham.

Mr. Graham sent a team of medical specialists to Baghdad last week, led by Lebanese pastor Sami Dagher, a fellow evangelist and longtime friend. Both team and equipment flew from Dubai to Baghdad in a chartered cargo jet to avoid the banditry that continues to plague relief convoys traveling overland from Jordan. They carried enough equipment to outfit four operating rooms of the hospital, including new X-ray machines and emergency-room supplies. Samaritan's Purse technicians, along with Mr. Dagher, remained in Baghdad through the week to install the equipment and train Iraqi staff and doctors in how to use it. Mr. Graham said, in a special mailing to donors, the shipment represents "one of the largest medical projects in our history."

Although Mr. Graham made his first trip to Baghdad 30 years ago, few now champion his relief work in Iraq.

Comments now 20 months old calling Islam "a very evil and wicked religion" made him an outlaw not only with politically correct internationalists but also with mainstream evangelicals (who say it's made reaching out to Muslims more difficult).

Those statements, critics said, disqualify him from working in a country that is 97 percent Muslim. "Groups like Franklin's exploit vulnerable people under the guise of humanitarian relief," said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Mr. Hooper said the Bush administration should not allow Samaritan's Purse into Iraq. It "will confirm suspicions in the Muslim world that this is really a war against Islam," he said.

Dozens of faith-based groups already had stockpiled supplies in Iraqi border states to help the needy, once U.S. forces gave the all-clear. The sudden publicity forced many to retool their strategy for serving. Despite the reputation for fairness most must keep to work in the Muslim world, their record was less important than their religious label.

Dominant-media journalists suddenly discovered that such groups might actually believe the mission statements they labor under. "Should Christian Missionaries Heed the Call in Iraq?" read a five-column-wide headline in The New York Times on April 6. The Washington Post headlined an April 15 editorial blasting Mr. Graham, "Evangelize Elsewhere."

Evangelical conservatives, too, voiced concern that Mr. Graham's comments went too far. They launched a series of meetings in Washington to debate the role of Christian workers in Muslim countries. Mike Cromartie, vice president of Ethics and Public Policy Center, opened one event last month with several references to Mr. Graham's "unfortunate" remarks. Conservative columnist and NPR commentator Joe Loconte labeled Mr. Graham's remarks "clumsy criticism." Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told a similar meeting May 7, "We must temper our speech.... There has to be a way to do good works without raising alarms."

Those critics differ from their more liberal counterparts by stopping short of calling for Christian humanitarian groups to stay out of Muslim countries. In fact, recent guidelines published by the Institute on Religion and Democracy and the National Association of Evangelicals state: "We cannot accept the notion that there is an 'Islamic world' in which Western Christians have no right to 'meddle.'"

Mr. Graham says experience informs what he says about Islam, including more than 70 trips to Muslim countries by his own estimate. Nearly two years of controversy hasn't changed his aid agency's purpose: "Our help is for the body and the soul."

He remains bemused by the criticism, telling WORLD in an interview last December he is "not a Muslim fighter" and "not on a crusade against Islam." He said, "When Jesus said, 'I am the way, the truth, and the life,' I believe that. Suddenly I'm a radical and an extremist because I don't believe that all ways lead to God?"

In the midst of public controversy, heated e-mails to the Boone, N.C., headquarters of Samaritan's Purse spiked to 500 one day in April. Tax-deductible contributions jumped also. A mass mailing that emphasized aid to Iraq had gone into mailboxes before the April headlines; loyal donors responded with double the expected contributions-nearly $1 million.

The organization, according to projects director Ken Isaacs, faced a dilemma. "Franklin Graham had become this lightning rod in a river of hatred, but we had raised money specifically to serve in Iraq and we were obligated to use it that way."

Still, the negative publicity forced a change in plans. Western staffers with the Iraqi project were pulled out of Jordan following threats made against the organization. Local workers rummaged through the group's warehouse, stripping logos from hygiene kits and other items that would tie the materials to Samaritan's Purse. In one case, blankets stamped with a logo were distributed to Bedouins nearby instead of being trucked into Iraq. Mr. Graham inserted himself more than usual in day-to-day planning sessions about Iraq, and a strategy gradually formed, according to Mr. Isaacs: "It became, Franklin must decrease but the work itself must increase."

"Decreasing" Mr. Graham initially meant that much-needed aid would have to be delivered without generating any much-feared publicity. On April 28 the first three trucks carrying medical supplies and emergency gear left Amman at midnight for the treacherous, 12-hour drive to Baghdad. The Samaritan's Purse team, headed by Mr. Dagher, visited an Islamic clinic run by the Muslim Brotherhood as well as a public hospital, staffed by Muslim doctors, at Yarmouk in west Baghdad. They also met with church leaders in Baghdad, where Samaritan's Purse has supported food and education programs since shortly after the first Gulf War. Throughout the weeklong trip, the organization's name was kept out of the media, but team members kept their eyes open for future opportunities.

"We know the time is short. A new government will mean a lot of red tape, but for now the field is wide open to Christians," said Mr. Dagher. He told WORLD he received a warm welcome and letters of thanks from the local imams who run the Islamic clinic-evidence, he said, that they don't mind Christian aid. The criticism of Christian relief groups, Mr. Dagher maintains, comes from outside Iraq.

Other relief-group coordinators agree. Serge Duss, director of public policy and advocacy for World Vision, said, "No one in Iraq is saying, 'No, we will refuse humanitarian aid from Christian organizations.' The controversy is a mountain made out of a molehill because of the person who said it and his association with a humanitarian organization."

Asked whether World Vision had made any changes in how it deploys aid because of the controversy, Mr. Duss said, "Absolutely not." World Vision's presence in Iraq also goes back to the first Gulf War, and Mr. Duss said humanitarian agencies are used to working in countries that are predominantly non-Christian. World Vision, in another example, has continued work in Gugarat, India, even after Hindu extremists murdered missionary Graham Staines and his two sons. "When people are suffering, they are not asking where the aid is coming from," Mr. Duss said.

Few of the Graham critics saw the irony of invoking a religious curfew on a country just liberated from dictatorship. They also failed to examine the on-the-ground performance of the groups now falling under closer scrutiny. In addition to Samaritan's Purse and World Vision, others who openly label themselves "Christian" include the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, World Relief, and Food for the Hungry. The Jordan Baptist Society and Jordanian Evangelical Committee for Relief and Development are regional groups working specifically as faith-based charities in Iraq.

"We continue to debate among ourselves how we will be both relevant and sensitive to the culture," said Mr. Duss, "and at the same time true to why we exist, which is to love God and love our neighbor."

Samaritan's Purse pressed forward with plans for Iraq because it, like others, already has overcome daunting barriers to entry elsewhere. Mr. Graham distributed over a million shoeboxes to Muslim children in Bosnia during its civil war. His medical teams set up field hospitals in war-torn Somalia, also Muslim. They have worked in Sudan long enough to have their own hospital bombed by the Islamic government-and to be invited last Christmas by a minister of the same government to give out shoeboxes to children in Khartoum.

Most humanitarian aid groups recognize that they must succeed visibly to further good will with donors. At the same time, the hostility of Muslim-dominated governments toward religious freedom-even before 9/11 but now more so-makes it important to blend in. Time magazine tried to crack that enigma in a long-awaited cover story, "Should Christians Convert Muslims?" in its June 30 issue. The extensive coverage soured many relief workers and missionaries even before it was written. Christian workers shied from speaking to Time after they saw a four-page internal planning memo written by New York editor Amanda Bower.

"We are planning a major piece on the flood of Christian missionaries, most of them evangelical, to Muslim countries," she wrote bureau chiefs around the world. "The trend," she said, "began about a decade ago."

In addition to challenging her history (Mr. Dagher, for instance, presides in Lebanon over a Christian and Missionary Alliance work begun in 1890), Christian workers were alarmed by her terminology. The story, she said, would narrow its focus to "a more radical crew of proselytizers, those who proclaim the gospel of Christ, even if that means risking deportation, imprisonment, or death." The memo contained repeated references to pinpointing these "hard-core Evangelicals."

After the memo was spammed to the missionary world, many Christian workers refused to cooperate with head writer David Van Diema, prompting delays and a final story heavier on the ongoing debate than day-to-day interaction between Christians and Muslims, the kind of encounter witnessed by Mr. Dagher and the Samaritan's Purse team last week.

Mr. Graham has since April refused numerous requests for interviews, keeping to a previous schedule that includes evangelistic meetings with his father, and perhaps for now fewer trips to Muslim countries. He says opinion pieces he wrote for The New York Times in 2001 and the Los Angeles Times this past April "reflect my views" and he has no intention of "adding to them"-borrowing a cue from one of his favorite legends, missionary David Livingstone, who said: "I'm willing to go anywhere, provided it is forward." c

-with reporting by Bob Jones in Baghdad

Mindy Belz

Mindy Belz

Mindy wrote WORLD Magazine's first cover story in 1986 and went on to serve as international editor, editor, and now senior editor. She has covered wars in Syria, Afganistan, Africa, and the Balkans, and she recounts some of her experiences in They Say We Are Infidels: On the Run from ISIS with Persecuted Christians in the Middle East. Mindy resides with her husband, Nat, in Asheville, N.C. Follow her on Twitter @mcbelz.