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Disaster aid furthers fears of proselytizing

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For countries with thousands left homeless and bereft by the tsunami, the outpouring of help from around the world is a godsend. Yet in some nations, the growing presence of faith-based agencies dispensing the aid is posing another challenge - stirring tensions already simmering around evangelism and anti-Christian violence.

In Sri Lanka, for example, prior to the tsunami, two anti-conversion bills that would make "unethical conversions" illegal were introduced into parliament. Reacting to a perceived increase in Christian proselytizing, the bill proposed by a militant Buddhist party would impose fines and five to seven years imprisonment for anyone who gives material aid to someone of another faith.

Omalpe Sobitha, a Buddhist monk member of parliament, charged aid groups with offering money, food, employment, or other inducements to convert people to Christianity.

A week before the tsunami hit, a church in Sri Lanka was burned to the ground - the latest in more than 160 violent attacks against churches and pastors in the past two years. In November 2003, the office of World Vision, a global Christian aid agency active in Sri Lanka since 1977, was firebombed.

"World Vision was mentioned specifically in parliamentary debates on the legislation, though we don't seek to convert anyone," says Dean Owen, its director of communications. Like several major organizations with faith connections, World Vision follows a Red Cross code of conduct that bans proselytizing.

But since 2000, Evangelical Christians across the globe have mounted a missionary effort targeting the "10/40 Window" - the Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist nations between 10 degrees and 40 degrees north latitude. East Asians, such as Koreans, as well as Westerners are active in several countries.

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