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PRESS RELEASE 22 October 2003


South Wales Fire Service is all set to dump its 2003 Christmas charity project because it is connected with Christian fundamentalists who send evangelising literature to developing countries in gift boxes.

Operation Christmas Child is run in the UK by Samaritan's Purse International (SPI), a US-based proselytising missionary organisation led by a controversial fundamentalist, Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham. Schoolchildren, churches and businesses fill boxes with sweets, pens, toys and other goodies for the charity to distribute.

But donors don't realise that fundamentalist literature is going out with the boxes -- and that the cost of sending donated items eats into their potential worth.

Last Christmas, a number of organisations that had supported Operation Christmas Child were expressing concern as they discovered its true nature. Now, South Wales Fire Service's director of corporate services, Norman Hillier, has written to a concerned National Secular Society member in Wales, Andy Armitage, to say that he has " instructed that the brigade's normal involvement with this project be halted and any future involvement will be subject to an investigation of the allegations made by yourself and others about the organisation " .

Mr Armitage had written to the fire service pointing out that it was aligning itself with Christian fundamentalists. Mr Hillier tells Mr Armitage in a letter: " I am sure that you will appreciate the brigade's intention has always been to support wherever possible worthwhile causes that relieve suffering and poverty wherever it occurs. Our involvement in Operation Christmas Child has been on the basis that the project was no more than a charitable event. We do not lend support to any political or religious organisation in their own right, neither do we wish to be associated with anybody whose activities would bring the brigade into dispute. "

Mr Armitage also wrote via email to the Co-operative Retail Society, and has received an emailed reply saying that the Co-op are looking into the organisation. He had seen concern expressed about SPI in an Internet discussion group, and believes others from that group have written, also, to the Co-op and South Wales Fire Service.

According to an article in the Guardian (18 December 2002), Franklin Graham caused controversy in the US by branding Islam as " wicked, violent and not of the same god " .

Brendan Paddy of Save the Children told the same reporter that it was dangerous when charities mixed their humanitarian work with promotion of a religious or political agenda.

Operation Christmas Child was begun by a couple in North Wales in the early 1990s. It was taken over by Samaritan's Purse in 1995.

But donors of gifts are not told that the charity's boxes contain fundamentalist Christian literature. SPI's website carries a newsletter, which claimed last Christmas that the boxes " have led to salvation for tens of thousands of children and their families " . In Zambia , for instance, " one shoebox prepared the way for nearly two dozen people to come to faith in Jesus Christ " .

Andy Armitage said on behalf of the National Secular Society: " I realise that much good is done by many organisations -- some of them religious -- to help deserving people all over the world. But this is crass dishonesty.

" It is also an insult to the people who have made donations of gifts, because they've done so without the knowledge that the pen, packet of sweets or cuddly toy they've donated will be taking with it a message encouraging people towards fundamentalist Christianity. Who knows what conflicts that might cause in their own communities?

" I applaud the fact that South Wales Fire Service are taking this seriously, and that the Co-op are looking into it. I hope our action in bringing this to people's attention will make good people think twice about what charities they support each Christmas -- and at other times of the year. These days, with the Internet and its powerful search engines, it's possible to do some basic research before committing to any particular cause. "

A number of head teachers expressed concern last Christmas when told about the missionary aspect of SPI's work.

Brendan Paddy doubts the economic value of sending boxes full of donated goods, when transport costs are going to make items more expensive than they would be in the recipient country.

Further information: Andy Armitage email here .

Norman Hillier is director of corporate services, South Wales Fire Service, Lanelay Hall, Pontyclun CF72 9XA.