Terrorism

DANGEROUS MISSION

Many aid workers, especially missionaries, are in peril, says SALLY ARMSTRONG

January 20 2003
Terrorism

DANGEROUS MISSION

Many aid workers, especially missionaries, are in peril, says SALLY ARMSTRONG

January 20 2003

DANGEROUS MISSION

Terrorism

Many aid workers, especially missionaries, are in peril, says SALLY ARMSTRONG

A SUDDEN CHANGE of plans saved Jean Chamberlain-Froese from death at the hands of a man who believed slaughtering Christians would bring him closer to God. Chamberlain-Froese, a doctor from Hamilton, had been teaching at a university in Sana’a, the Yemeni capital, for 16 months. On Dec. 30 she planned to attend a meeting in Jibia, a rural town of3,000, to discuss

the administration of the Baptist Hospital there. But the night before, the time of the meeting was changed and a colleague told her, “It’s better if you don’t come.” His suggestion proved prophetic. The following day, a member of the fundamentalist Islamic Jihad burst into a staff meeting at the hospital and gunned down a doctor and two administrators—all American Baptist

missionaries. Afterward, one of her Arab friends told Chamberlain-Froese she, too, was in danger. “I’m telling you as your brother,” he said. “You should watch yourself here.”

The Jibia hospital, located 170 km south of the capital, has operated for 35 years under the auspices of the U.S. Southern Baptist Convention. That organization calls

the three victims “martyrs killed in the line of duty.” Chamberlain-Froese, 37, who is in Yemen working for International Community Services, a local humanitarian aid group, knew all of the victims. Twenty weeks pregnant and on leave from teaching obstetrics at McMaster University, she plans to return to Canada in April to deliver her baby. But what then? Chamberlain-Froese and her husband, Thomas, who works as an editor at the Yemen Times, faced a tough decision: do concerns for their safety outweigh their desire to help the needy? For now, they have decided to go back after their child is born. But, shaken by the murders, she says, “I’m in shock, I can’t believe it happened.” Other aid workers are wrestling with the

same concerns. Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the U.S. has fought a running battle with terrorists, many with links to Muslim extremists. Unable to strike direcdy at American targets, some have focused on Western aid workers. Although she enjoys living in Yemen, Chamberlain-Froese says that when walking down the streets of the capital, she can feel the animosity. “Occasionally I get the sense that I’m not welcome,” she says. “People look at you and you can tell there’s no love lost for Americans. So I try to make it clear that I’m Canadian.”

The violence is spreading. According to a UN report, in the 6 V2 years from January 1992 to August 1998,153 aid workers lost their lives worldwide, many shot by extremists and bandits in Third World countries, while 43 were kidnapped. But during the next 2 V2 years, up to January 2001, there were 198 deaths and 240 kidnappings. Now, says Linda Tripp, a Mississauga, Ont.based vice-president of Christian aid organization World Vision, the threat of war with Iraq has increased tensions, putting the lives of relief workers in even greater danger. “Warlords and rebels,” she says, “are people who don’t want peace. Instability is better for their cause.”

The murders of the hospital workers underscores the danger confronting Westerners working in the Middle East. Just two days earlier, Jarallah Omar, a secular leader of the Yemeni government opposition, was shot dead after making a speech in Sana’a calling for moderation and non-violence. Walid Al-Saqqaf, editor-in-chief of the Yemen Times, toi ¿Maclean’s the slayings are linked. “The killers knew each other and wanted to make a statement,” says Al-Saqqaf. “They agreed that one would take Jibia, the other Sana’a, because they wanted to condemn missionary activities and Yemeni political co-operation with the United States.”

Few Western aid groups have escaped the violence. Doctors Without Borders is still searching for Arjan Erkel, a staff member from the Netherlands kidnapped in Dagestan last August. The UNICEF office in Quetta, Pakistan, and three of its SUVs, were gutted in a fire in October 2001, when American bombs started falling in neighbouring Afghanistan. And in Pakistan a string of violent assaults on Christian organizations have killed at least 36 people and injured about 100 since fighting started in Afghanistan. In November, an American missionary nurse accused of proselytizing was murdered, apparently by Muslim gunmen. Willard Oxtoby, professor emeritus of comparative religion at the University of Toronto, blames the attacks on an explosive mix of politics and religion. “Two things have come together,” says Oxtoby. “Theological opposition to defection from Islam [punishable by death under Islamic law] and the recent rise in resentment of the West in the Muslim world.”

As tensions increase, Oxtoby wonders if missionaries are doing more harm than

good. Orthodox and Coptic Christian churches have survived for centuries in the Muslim world by tending to their own flocks and not attempting to convert Muslims. Evangelical Christians like the Baptist Convention are more aggressive, and that has led to conflict. “It is wrong to proselytize among people who have a religious faith,” says Oxtoby. “No one has the moral right to tell someone they can’t find salvation without Christianity.”

Many Christians, however, believe that spreading the Word is a human rights issue. “World Vision has a policy against proselytizing, but people have the right to talk about their faith,” says Tripp. “When we register in a country we don’t hide the fact we are a Christian organization. We don’t have the attitude that we have to save people, but if people come to us, we’re happy about that.” She insists being exposed to different opinions is a basic human right. “Whether it’s educating your daughters,” she says, “or choosing not to subject them to female genital mutilation or becoming a Muslim or a Christian, the freedom to choose is a right.”

In a world divided between rich and poor, aid workers are often attacked because they are seen as privileged

Religion may be behind some of the killings, but politics plays a part as well. “Kidnapping relief workers is about power and influence,” says Dr. Bruce Lampard, an emergency medicine specialist from Toronto who joined Doctors Without Borders two years ago and has served in Sudan and Afghanistan. “If we’re trying to get into a place where a warlord doesn’t want us, we’re seen as helping the enemy and we become vulnerable.” It doesn’t seem to matter that the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court makes the murder of humanitarian personnel a war crime. Carol Devine, humanitarian affairs officer with Doctors Without Borders in Toronto, says warring parties routinely ignore the law. “These statutes aren’t relevant today,” she says. “Aid

agencies are being forced to leave because it isn’t safe to do the work they came to do. We have to make the laws relevant.”

In a world increasingly divided between rich and poor, foreign aid workers are also often attacked because they’re seen as privileged. People notice the big SUVs cruising around their towns and see the best houses rented to the UN and other agencies. Foreign workers also have food, transportation and an evacuation plan. And that leads to a resentment that ChamberlainFroese sometimes feels. She tries to take extra precautions by wearing a long black coat called a balto and a scarf on her head. Even so, she too has experienced the terror of being attacked. “I was on my way to visit a friend in Jibia,” she says. “A man on the street said, ‘Good evening.’ I shouldn’t have replied but I did answer, ‘Good evening,’ and he came after me. He grabbed my face and pushed me against the wall. I screamed and the guy ran away.” Incidents like that will no doubt be on the minds of humanitarian aid workers as they venture out into an increasingly dangerous world. U]