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Evangelists exploit Christmas cheer to target Muslim children

by Natasha Grzincic

Red Pepper magazine,
Issue 126, December 2004/ January 200

At teacher Michael Goldfarb's north London primary school, students have been busily cramming shoeboxes with toys, sweets and other gifts for needy children around the world this Christmas. Last year 1.3 million of such gift boxes were sent from the UK through the charity Operation Christmas Child (OCC), including a box from Tony Blair. Annually, more than 6 million boxes are doled out worldwide.

Eighty stuffed boxes later, Goldfarb was shocked to discover that OCC is run by evangelical organisation Samaritan's Purse, headed by Christian fundamentalist Franklin Graham.

Graham, whose father is the evangelist Billy Graham, is infamous for calling Islam ‘a very wicked and evil religion'. While in India he wrote of ‘hundreds of millions of people locked in the darkness of Hinduism… bound by Satan's power'.

Many of OCC's boxes are delivered to children along with ‘a booklet of Bible stories in their own language'. The boxes from the UK go primarily to parts of the former Soviet Union , including countries with large Muslim populations.

Up until last year, Samaritan Purse's executive director in the UK was David Vardy, who's on the governing body of Emmanuel College in Gateshead . The city academy made headlines a few years ago for teaching creationism in its ‘science' curriculum.

Samaritan's Purse denies that the main aim of OCC is to proselytise. A spokesperson said: ‘If the indigenous organisation that we work with doesn't think the Bible stories are suitable, we don't hand them out. It's not like if you don't take a Bible, you don't get a box.' Samaritan's Purse's promotional material tells a different story, however. One of its own reps described the project as ‘a tool for evangelism'.

This year the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) and the Muslim education campaign Innovative Minds decided to launch a campaign to expose OCC. They went through the list of organisations supporting the project, and wrote to about 100 of them explaining the charity's suspect background. ‘We pointed out that organisations which are there to serve the whole community irrespective of race and religion should not be supporting such racism,' said an Innovative Minds spokesperson. ‘Most were not aware of the bigotry behind the project and many made commitments to never again support OCC.'

In 2003 the Co-operative Society and the fire service in south Wales decided against renewing their contracts with the charity following complaints about Graham. The Co-op said: ‘Had we been aware of his views in advance, we would not have participated in OCC.'

Innovative Minds and the IHRC are currently drawing up a list of organisations that chose not to distance themselves from the charity. It includes a surprising number of publicly funded bodies, including Durham County Council and Warwickshire College, one of the UK 's largest education providers. ‘It's outrageous that these organisations with equal opportunity policies continue to support an aggressive and divisive form of Christianity that exploits vulnerable children with toys,' said IHRC chair Massoud Shadjareh. ‘Even the cost of sending donated items doesn't make economic sense.'

Back in north London, Michael Goldfarb's ‘multi-faith, equal opportunities state school' has now decided to distribute its gift boxes through a local organisation: the Bible-free and economically sound Help a London Child.