Christian NGOs face challenges in conflict zones

Whether it is supplying food aid in famine-stricken Somalia, promoting human rights in conflict-ridden Sudan or providing medical care in war-torn Afghanistan, Christian humanitarian groups are giving vital assistance in many of the world's hotspots, risking life and limb to help the starving, poor and sick.

Somalia, already ravaged by an ongoing civil war, is suffering through the world's worst famine in decades, according to the United Nations.

Without a functioning government, Somalia is a failed state, where Islamist militias and warlords control various regions of the east African nation. That makes Somalia one of the most dangerous places in the world.

Despite the danger, World Vision, a Christian not-for-profit organization that provides both emergency humanitarian assistance as well as long-term development aid, has put staff on the ground in Somalia.

Dave Toycen, president and CEO of World Vision Canada, is keenly aware of the risks of operating in Somalia and other danger zones.

"The key challenge that World Vision faces in any situation where it provides humanitarian assistance is to balance the protection and safety of our staff with our commitment to provide help to those in need," Toycen writes in an e-mail.

"This holds true whether we are dealing with a conflict situation, a natural disaster, or even providing support in areas that are deemed peaceful," he says.

In conflict zones, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast, providing humanitarian assistance is the top priority for Caritas Internationalis, the humanitarian and development agency of the Roman Catholic Church.

"This can mean working in insecure environments, so urging all sides in a conflict to guarantee protection of aid workers and civilians is very important, as is access to the affected population," says Patrick Nicholson, head of communications at Caritas.

"Personnel safety is an issue," he concedes. "And sadly, Caritas staff, because they work at the community level and are part of the community they work in, can be particularly vulnerable."

Nicholson says that the Catholic NGO has lost a high number of staff in the last three years, with five people killed and more injured around the world.

According to John Lewis, a Sudan expert at KAIROS, an ecumenical church organization that promotes and defends human rights in the developing world, a high ranking member of a partner organization was assassinated in Congo in 2005.

"We have lost members of partner organizations in other places, as well, including Colombia and Indonesia," he says.

The mass murder of 10 members of a Christian medical team in Afghanistan made headlines around the world in August 2010.

The International Assistance Mission (IAM) has been providing eye care to Afghans for over four decades. According to the Christian non-profit organization's web site, IAM has helped an estimated five million Afghans.

"We are here at the invitation of the government and local communities among who we work," Dirk Frans, executive director of IAM-Afghanistan, tells ChristianWeek. "They want our input, our services and the capacity building of Afghans that IAM is known for."

Despite the good works performed by IAM, Taliban gunmen deliberately targeted a team of IAM doctors, nurses and Afghan staffers travelling in the northern mountains of Badakhshan province.

Taking responsibility for the killings, the Islamist insurgents accused the medical team of being "foreign spies" and of spreading Christianity. IAM denies both allegations.

"We work on the premise that we are not party to any of the conflicts that have ravaged Afghanistan since we started working here in 1966," Frans writes in an e-mail.

The victims of the Taliban ambush included six Americans, one Brit, one German and two Afghans.

The Washington Post described the attack as "one of the deadliest on civilian aid workers" since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

The impact of the murders continues to be felt by IAM.

"With the death of the 10 colleagues of the Nuristan Eye Camp team, IAM has lost its capacity to do eye camps in such remote places," Frans says. "It is unlikely that we will be able to rebuild that capacity as a number of younger team members were among those killed."

IAM continues to conduct eye care camps in less remote villages and urban areas of Afghanistan. The Christian charity also continues to train Afghan eye care specialists, including doctors, ophthalmic technicians, nurses and administrators.

Though the murders of the Nuristan medical team continue to weigh heavily on IAM, Frans says that the organization does not use armed security guards. Nor does it permit weapons on its compounds or in its vehicles.

"This policy has served us well," he insists.

For Toycen, the security of World Vision staff is "always a concern."

"Before any World Vision staff members goes into the field to provide assistance, he or she is given extensive training in everything from first aid to dealing with potentially hazardous situations," he says.

Caritas recognizes that providing humanitarian and development assistance can be dangerous.

Nicholson claims that one of the best ways to protect Caritas staff is to be part of and respected by the communities that they serve.

But no matter what, he says, Caritas has to keep its impartiality in conflict zones.

While no one likes dealing with bad guys, the reality is that some Christian aid organizations operating in danger zones have little choice but to engage in dialogue with military commanders, local militias, rebels and warlords.

For example, says Nicholson, Caritas tries to get the occupying force to grant it security from attack and to allow the NGO "access across battle lines and into communities caught by the conflict."

When negotiating security arrangements with Caritas, the occupying force "has to be able to guarantee the aid will be given to the affected population, and not seized afterwards and misappropriated in some way."

Even though World Vision generally tries to keep its staff out of conflict zones, Toycen acknowledges that "in specific situations, we will engage with combatants to express our commitment to peace." He is quick to add: "We are always careful to maintain a non-partisan stance."

Toycen explains that at the local level, World Vision staffers "undertake efforts to work with community leaders in particular areas to encourage them to allow humanitarian aid to be distributed to the neediest people."

Christian NGOs face other challenges in danger zones, including transportation problems.

Most notably over the last few years, notes Frans, the organizations has had to stop all inter-provincial road transport" in Afghanistan, where roadside bombs are commonplace.

When travelling to six regions outside of the capital city of Kabul, IAM must use commercial and charter flights.

"Without that air transport," says Frans, "we would have to withdraw from the two poorest of our six regions."

Transportation challenges have also hampered humanitarian efforts in northern Sudan.

"Movement within [north] Sudan can be restricted by government," says Lewis, who was denied entry into Darfur in 2007, at the height of the genocide perpetrated by government-back Arab militias against the region's black African population.

"The Sudanese agency responsible for issuing visas made it impossible for us to monitor the work we were co-financing with CIDA [Canadian International Development Agency], at the time," he recalls.

Prior to the separation of north and south Sudan in July, says Lewis, the Islamist regime in Khartoum "made international partnerships difficult for Sudanese NGOs."

"We know from speaking with Sudanese NGOs that conditions remain challenging in Khartoum," he says. And that applies to churches in the Muslim-majority north, as well.

"The challenges for churches operating in [north] Sudan," predicts Lewis, "will remain as long as the National Islamic Front continues to hold sway over the government there."

In largely Christian South Sudan, which declared independence after decades of civil war, Lewis points out that KAIROS has "never had problems imposed on us by officials."

Almost all of the challenges faced by KAIROS' partners in South Sudan are related to logistics, including poor roads and floods.

On August 5, IAM held a day of remembrance for their slain colleagues, asking Christians around the world to "pray for the relatives of those foreigners who still work in Afghanistan and those planning to come soon."

Despite the risks, the humanitarian work of IAM will continue in Afghanistan.

"Those of us here in Afghanistan consider it a privilege to live and work here," Frans says.

Similarly, World Vision will continue to provide humanitarian and development assistance under difficult circumstances.

Toycen offers a final thought on operating in danger zones: "As the Bible says in Psalm 34: 'Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.'"

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Geoffrey P. Johnston is a Canadian rights journalist. Follow him on Twitter @GeoffyPJohnston.