What is the role of religion in humanitarian relief?

By Kent Hill 22 March 2016

The Rev. Daniel al-Khoury Timoteus leads a service at Mar Elia Church in Ankawa, 5 miles northwest of Erbil. He and the congregation are internally displaced Christian Iraqis. Photo by: Steve Jeter / World Vision

Over the past five years, the war in Syria has displaced almost 12 million people. Since the start of the crisis, World Vision has helped more than 2 million children and adults in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and now Serbia.

Some might ask why — as a Christian organization — do we expend such efforts to help an overwhelmingly Muslim population throughout the Middle East? And does our faith-based orientation allow us to contribute anything important to the crisis?

The first reason World Vision began responding to the Syria conflict was because as Christians we have a theological mandate to respond to all in need, regardless of what their faith tradition is or is not.

In the Bible we find these words: “And God said, ‘Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness …” We believe all human beings are created in the image of God and are deserving of respect and protection. Our Christian theology guides us to be a force for inter-religious cooperation and harmony — something often desperately needed in crisis situations.

A second theological foundation for our commitment to all is found in Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan. The parable is told in response to a lawyer’s question to Jesus when he asks: “Who is our neighbor?” To answer, Jesus tells about the good Samaritan who stops to help a stranger in distress. Jesus never identifies the man who was in such a desperate situation. No indication of his ethnic or religious credentials is provided. Apparently, that was precisely the point: It did not matter. Nothing mattered but that the man was in serious need.

A third source of the Christian theological mandate to help all comes directly from Jesus. The teaching is to be found in another parable where Jesus so identifies with the poor that he tells his followers: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Thus, for World Vision, the decision to help Muslims in need of assistance as a result of the Syrian conflict was not a close call and not a matter for debate; our response was theologically grounded in our deep-rooted sense that this is what Jesus expects us to do.

Indeed, for World Vision International, over a quarter of our $2.8 billion global budget addresses the needs of Muslims. Need is the sole criteria.

Is it possible to simultaneously be faithful to one’s core religious beliefs, and yet still provide assistance with absolutely no strings attached? World Vision, and other large Christian organizations, believe that it is, and operate on that assumption.

Indeed, we are one of 546 signatories to the 1994 Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement and nongovernmental organizations in disaster relief. The third of its 10 principles is: “Aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint.” It is important to note that the code forbids what might be called “proselytizing” in its common pejorative meaning, that is, in the sense of the unethical tying of aid to “embracing or acceptance of a particular political or religious creed.”

However, the code does not forbid anyone from publicly or privately celebrating their faith or reflecting it in word or deed as appropriate. Indeed, it could not have proscribed such expressions of faith for that would have represented a violation of Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which was passed unanimously (48-0) in 1948. Article 18 reads: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

In humanitarian disasters, when physical needs are desperate and lives hang in the

balance, it may well be inappropriate or unlikely that a faith-based development organization’s basic beliefs will be known or discussed in any detail, if at all. The sharing of one’s faith and worldview — and this goes for secular as well as religious actors — flows best out of the natural interaction of people of good will sharing honestly who they are and what they believe. But there must be no conditions for humanitarian assistance. As for the good Samaritan, it is quite enough that a man is bleeding and dying for one to be compelled to bend down to help.

World Vision very much seeks to put into practice the words of St. Francis of Assisi when he counseled in the 13th century: “Witness always, use words when necessary.” That is, we are proud to share our faith when appropriate and when invited, but we believe our task is often primarily to reflect our faith in our love and deeds of compassion.

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About the author

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Kent Hill

Kent Hill joined World Vision in February 2011 after more than three decades serving in U.S. government, academic and nonprofit leadership roles. As head of international programs for World Vision U.S., he collaborates with the international partnership of World Vision to help facilitate the overseas allocation of resources from government grants, corporate donated goods and individual donors.


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