Nepal earthquake: How religious groups prey on the victims of natural disasters

A Hindu Nepalese woman offers prayers at Indrayani temple, which was damaged in the earthquake.

A Hindu Nepalese woman offers prayers at Indrayani temple, which was damaged in the earthquake. Photo: AP

No matter how sophisticated our scientific knowledge becomes, in the face of natural disaster many humans will still turn to religion for answers and comfort.

It is therefore unsurprising that religious sentiment soared following the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 and the 2010 Haiti Earthquake. Yet some may be surprised to learn how much of it was due to missionaries who exploited these crises, using them as opportunities to impose their own religious beliefs on a shocked and disoriented populace.

Within hours of the catastrophic earthquake striking Nepal over the weekend, evangelical Christians took to social media to express both their sorrow at all those who had perished without "knowing Jesus" and their hopes that the tragedy would propel the mostly-Hindu population to embrace the Gospel.

Victims of the Nepal earthquake rest inside a helicopter as they are evacuated.

Victims of the Nepal earthquake rest inside a helicopter as they are evacuated. Photo: Reuters

It is one thing to merely share these sentiments, however tasteless they may be. But it's quite another to use such a tragedy to actively spread a particular ideology as J Lavey Prabu, of the India-based Super-Life mission, did when he tweeted, "Already our mission workers are there to help the people and tell them the goodness of Jesus."

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The damage near Baiturrahman mosque in tsunami-hit Banda Aceh.

The damage near Baiturrahman mosque in tsunami-hit Banda Aceh. Photo: Reuters

Religious missionaries capitalise on natural disasters in two ways. First, they strike fear into the traumatised population by implying the event was a direct result of their lack of faith. Second, and perhaps more chillingly, they offer "money, food, employment, or other inducements to convert people".

Both of these dubious methods were used in Aceh following the tsunami that devastated the Indonesian province. As The Guardian reported at the time:

People wait at a school after the earthquake in Nepal.

People wait at a school after the earthquake in Nepal. Photo: Reuters

"Dozens of religious groups have moved in to Aceh, looking to help tsunami victims - and convert them…Mark Kosinski, an American evangelist who arrived in Aceh from Malaysia last week, said: 'These people need food but they also need Jesus. God is trying to awaken people and help them realise salvation is in Christ.'"

Such a statement is only a hair's breadth away from outright declaring the tragedy was a deliberate act of God as punishment for not being Christian.

The Guardian continues:

"One US Christian group…tried to airlift 300 'tsunami orphans' to a Christian children's home. WorldHelp started raising funds for the operation until it learned that the Indonesian government had banned non-Muslims from adopting Acehnese orphans."

In other words, WorldHelp was only prepared to help these orphans as long as there was a chance they would be converted to Christianity.

This rampant proselytism wasn't limited to Christians. Aceh, like most of Indonesia, is predominantly Muslim and following the devastation, as the trauma saw many previously non-practicing survivors turn to religion, it wasn't long before hardline Islamic groups seized their chance to spread their own ideology:

"More radical Muslim groups started arriving in the province within days. These include the Islamic Defenders' Front, which has attacked bars and shops selling alcohol in Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, and Lashkar Mujahideen, which endorses a militant ideology…groups are handing out Korans and even veils alongside aid."

It was a similar situation when disaster struck Haiti in 2010. US evangelical preacher Pat Robertson set the tone for what was to come by blaming the quake on the Caribbean country's lack of Christianity, claiming it had made a "pact to the devil".

Pretty soon it was a free-for-all. John Travolta flew tonnes of aid- and Scientology ministers- to the country on his private jet. Christian, Muslim and Jewish groups also descended on the island, each literally wearing their religion on their sleeve, dressed in "T-shirts of a different hue declaring which faith had inspired them to help save Haiti".

The situation, where these faith-based groups attempted to out-proselytise each other, got so out of hand that ten Christian missionaries were charged with child abduction after allegedly attempting to smuggle 33 children out of the country. The charges were eventually dismissed.

It should go without saying that the distribution of aid should not be contingent on religious conversion, nor should survivors be subjected to insinuations that they brought they tragedy upon themselves by rejecting God.

Of course, that's not to say religious organisations should not be permitted to dispense aid. Indeed, it is faith-based groups that have often been there when help is needed most, and who have given selflessly.

However, as Vince Isner of FaithfulAmerica.org told the Christian Science Monitor, this aid should be dispensed in a manner that respects the faith (if any) of those they are helping.

"There's a power imbalance when people are in dire need… When others offer aid and ask, 'By the way, do you know why this happened to you? There's a better way.'"

Indeed, there is a better way- help people without expecting a reward in return, including the reward of religious conversion.

In these initial days following the quake in Nepal, as the fatalities and displacement skyrocket and the true extent of the tragedy unfolds, parameters must be set by the international community as to what we will tolerate from religious-based groups on the ground.

Aid is desperately needed, but, as some locals are already making clear, religious coercion and opportunism is not.