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Presents imperfect

It sounded like a great idea - British school pupils sending Christmas boxes to children in poorer lands. But Patrick McCurry uncovers aspects of the operation that have shocked head teachers

Wednesday December 18, 2002

The Guardian

Hundreds of thousands of children and their families have spent time and money in the run-up to Christmas packing shoeboxes with sweets, toys, pens and other gifts for needy youngsters in eastern Europe and the developing world. About a million boxes are expected to be sent from Britain this year in Operation Christmas Child.

Yet many of the scheme's supporters, who include thousands of schools, are unaware that the organisation behind it is a US-based, evangelical and missionary Christian charity led by a controversial fundamentalist. Parents and teachers are not told that the boxes are in many cases sent overseas with religious literature.

Head teachers whose schools have supported the scheme are expressing alarm. Roger McDuff, the head of Newlands primary school in Newcastle upon Tyne , says the school has supported Operation Christmas Child for the past five years. This year, its 162 children have dispatched 92 boxes. But no mention of the missionary nature of the appeal has been made in literature received by the school, says McDuff. "I'm very concerned - not least because we have Muslim pupils," he says.

Operation Christmas Child is run in Britain by Samaritan's Purse International (SPI), a charitable company linked to the US charity Samaritan's Purse. The latter's chief executive is a rightwing fundamentalist, Franklin Graham, son of the celebrated evangelist Billy Graham and a close friend of President Bush.

Franklin Graham, who is also the international president of the British charity SPI, has caused controversy in the US by branding Islam "wicked, violent and not of the same god".

Many staff of established humanitarian charities are increasingly concerned at the activities of evangelical relief agencies in the developing world. Brendan Paddy, of Save the Children, says it is dangerous when charities mix humanitarian work with the promotion of a particular religious or political agenda.

"The risk is that it creates conflict and that the agency is regarded as partisan," he says. "Given the current state of the world, I would have thought it particularly important for agencies to preserve neutrality."

Operation Christmas Child was begun by a couple from north Wales in response to the street-children crisis in Romania in the early 1990s. Samaritan's Purse took over the initiative in 1995 and it has grown rapidly. Last year, more than a million boxes - almost double the 1999 figure - were collected from churches, schools and businesses in Britain .

Worldwide, more than five million boxes are distributed from Samaritan's Purse offices in countries including the US , Canada and Australia . The American charity's accounts for last year show an annual income of $151m (£96m).

Each year, SPI sends appeal literature to 24,000 British schools. Of these, more that 10,000 are believed to take part in fundraising - many as part of their citizenship curriculum. Besides the shoebox items, valued by SPI at an average of £14, the charity asks for a £2 donation for each box towards transport and other costs.

The charity says about 4,500 volunteers were involved in last year's British appeal, which was backed by GMTV. For the past three years, Kwik-Fit has supported the initiative, allowing donors to leave boxes at its 650 tyre, exhaust and brake centres. In its annual report for 2000, SPI states that its objectives are "the advancement of the Christian faith through educational projects and the relief of poverty", and it describes itself as "a faith relief mission agency", although the latter does not appear in the 2001 report. The glossy appeal leaflets, which instruct children and parents what to put in boxes and how to pack them, do not make any mention of a missionary role.

However, SPI's website features links to a Samaritan's Purse newsletter from Graham, in which he states that God has blessed Operation Christmas Child "because it is about more than Christmas presents". He says: "It is about introducing children and their families to God's greatest gift - His Son, Jesus Christ. As long as evangelism is the focus, God will continue to bless it."

The newsletter says the boxes are distributed along with evangelical literature and that the boxes "have led to salvation for tens of thousands of children and their families". It cites examples such as in Zambia , where "one shoebox prepared the way for nearly two dozen people to come to faith in Jesus Christ".

Follow-up materials "give children further opportunities to accept Christ and grow in their faith". Hundreds of thousands of children in developing countries are said to have participated in a 10-lesson Bible-study course run by the charity.

Boxes from Britain are being sent this year to 14 countries in eastern Europe and south-west Asia, including some with large Muslim populations, such as Bosnia and Azerbaijan . Last year, boxes were also sent from Britain to Afghanistan .

A number of head teachers at schools involved in Operation Christmas Child voiced concern when told by the Guardian about the missionary aspect of Samaritan's Purse, and Graham's comments on Islam.

Shan Davies, head of Builth Wells high school in Powys, says her school produces about 200 boxes each Christmas, but that the charity has not informed her that the gifts delivered to needy children are accompanied by Christian literature. "I would have difficulty promoting the appeal if that were true," she says.

Tony Mok, acting head of East Whitby community primary school in North Yorkshire , says pupils and others in the community send about 200 boxes each Christmas. Told of Graham's comments on Islam, he says: "If that's true, it would not fit in with the values of citizenship for our pupils and we couldn't support it."

The Rev David Applin, chief executive of SPI, admits that a religious pamphlet - "The greatest gift of all" - is distributed with the boxes (though not inside them). But he denies that the appeal is evangelical. "The word evangelical has connotations and I prefer to think of us as a Christian group," he says, adding that he does not regard SPI as a missionary agency.

Applin accepts that the appeal literature sent to schools does not explicitly state the evangelical objectives of the charity, or that Christian literature accompanies the boxes, but he says he does not believe that donors are being misled.

Boxes are distributed in recipient countries by Samaritan's Purse partners, mainly evangelical churches and agencies. As well as the Samaritan's Purse literature, Applin acknowledges that the charity's overseas partners may be distributing their own pamphlets. He says he hopes any such literature focuses on "remembering the birth of Jesus Christ".

No box recipient is forced to accept religious literature, Applin stresses, and none is distributed in Muslim countries because the authorities do not allow it. He says that the US website from which the Graham newsletter originated "has an unfortunate way of putting things and is written from a US standpoint".

Regarding Graham's anti-Islam comments, he says: "I'm concerned that such things are said in such a public way, and the fact that we work with Muslims means these statements do not help us."

Graham was one of the founding trustees of SPI and remains on its board. But Applin says "he's never here" for board meetings, adding: "He shoots from the hip and I don't think his comments represent official Samaritan's Purse policy in the US ."

At Save the Children, Brendan Paddy acknowledges that many Christian-based humanitarian agencies, such as Christian Aid and Cafod, and even evangelical charities such as the Tear Fund, are well-regarded. "They demonstrate their religious values through their actions," he says.

However, he questions the economic sense of shipping boxes full of donated goods, arguing that transport costs could make the items more expensive than they would be in the recipient country. "Also, because each box contains different items, that can create conflict among the recipients," he says, stressing that a key principle of emergency relief was equality.

In many ways, says Paddy, appeals such as Operation Christmas Child are "something that benefits the giver more than the receiver".

Man with a mission

Franklin Graham, the elder son of the evangelist Billy Graham, was introduced to the work of Samaritan's Purse in 1973 by its founder, Bob Pierce, a family friend.

Pierce took Graham on a tour of Asia . In India , Graham wrote of "hundreds of millions of people locked in the darkness of Hinduism . . . bound by Satan's power".

He took over leadership of the charity in the late 1970s and, from its US base in North Carolina , has built Samaritan's Purse into a major international agency. The US charity's website describes the organisation as a "ministry" and says that, in Graham's early involvement, he "saw the poverty of pagan religions and the utter despair of the people they enslave".

According to Time magazine, the US charity's work has included training chaplains for the rightwing contra rebels in Nicaragua and sending thousands of Arabic versions of the New Testament into Saudi Arabia during the Gulf war. Last year, the charity was criticised in a New York Times article for holding prayer sessions in several villages in El Salvador before showing residents how to build emergency shelters following an earthquake.

After condemning Islam in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Graham softened his tone, stating he did not believe Muslims were evil but that evil had been done in the name of Islam. However, in his new book, The Name, he writes: "The God of Islam is not the God of the Christian faith. The two are different as lightness and darkness."

The British charity is based in Buckhurst Hill, Essex , and is officially called Samaritan's Purse International Ltd. It was set up in 1990. In its annual report, it says it has "an ongoing working relationship with Samaritan's Purse USA ".

According to the Operation Christmas Child website, the British charity arranges for some of the children it works with in the former Soviet Union to attend Christian summer camps, where children "learn about Jesus through the Bible-based teaching". In the Ukraine , British volunteers coached 1,750 children in football last year. The pastor leading the project "then gave each child a special soccer story leaflet called The Substitute, with an evangelistic message".

The charity's child and family support programme in Romania and Crimea includes "spiritual counselling", says the website. A volunteer in Romania writes that, after starting with the material and social needs of children and families, she canintroduce the Christian perspective. "We can speak about people with serious problems who, after spiritual counselling and after reintegrating them in a church community, have regained their inner harmony."




Readers' letters

Wednesday January 8, 2003

The Guardian

Gift or gaffe?

As someone who had raised concerns about Operation Christmas Child with the charity commission, I was very interested in your article (Presents imperfect, December 18).

I wrote to the commission last October to complain that the evangelical element in the campaign's activities wasn't indicated in its literature. The response of the commission has left me wondering what it would take to move it to action.

The crux of the reply was: "The choice of fundraising methods is a matter for the trustees to decide. We raised similar concerns with the charity last year, and received the attached response, which we hope will help to clear the concerns that you raised."

The attached "response" was from the Rev David Applin, chief executive of the British arm of Operation Christmas Child, and simply described the evangelical aspect of the campaign. This aspect still did not appear in publicity for the 2002 campaign, and if it appears in 2003, I feel it will probably be as a result of your article rather than any intervention by the commission.

I came across Operation Christmas Child when my daughter's infant school promoted the campaign. Nearly all the parents I spoke to were surprised to learn that it had a religious dimension, and felt that their children's natural pity was beingexploited. What I find especially offensive is that our children's generosity is being used to build the reputation of Franklin Graham, chief executive of Samaritan's Purse in the US and international president of the British arm, who is a supporter of the Christian right and holds anti-Islamic views.

Hudson Pace


Your revealing article came as quite a shock to me, and I'm sure to many other people.

I took part in the scheme two years ago and packed a shoebox which was collected by a local church. It all seemed quite innocent. I had no idea that behind the scheme was a US-based evangelical group, using it to spread religious propaganda.

I have decided that I certainly won't be taking part again, but will give money to other charities that do not seek to "brainwash" the recipients in this manner.

Zoe Adshead


Flying home to Canada today for a visit, I found your piece very interesting. The covert Christian evangelism that accompanies some of the boxes to other countries is extremely distasteful. However, the article does not comment on something equally distasteful - children in Britain sending Christmas presents to children in other countries.

In my experience, some white Britons possess a special type of ignorance. They are blind to the significant religious, cultural and racial diversity within, as well as outside, Britain . From this springs the assumption that, worldwide, everyone celebrates Christmas. In fact, a great number of the children making up the Christmas boxes for Operation Christmas Child, as well as the children receiving them, aren't Christian and don't celebrate Christmas.

I am reminded of the Band Aid song, recorded to raise money for famine victims in Africa , called Do They Know It's Christmas? My answer: No, and why does it matter?

Amanda Growe