Beliefnet
CHARLOTTE, N.C., March 6 -- A federal agency is investigating whether evangelist Franklin Graham's ministry used government money to seek converts among disaster victims in El Salvador.

Samaritan's Purse of Boone, N.C., has received $225,000 from the U.S. government to build prefabricated housing and distribute essential supplies after two recent earthquakes.

The U.S. Agency for International Development will try to determine whether the group used some of that money to evangelize, spokesperson Kim Walz said Monday. Officials will also investigate whether Samaritan's Purse offered aid only to those who accepted conversion efforts.

``An organization can't say, `You can't have this unless you convert,''' Walz said.

Graham is the son of evangelist Billy Graham, a spiritual leader for millions of Americans, and he delivered the inaugural invocation at President George W. Bush's swearing-in ceremony in January.

The issue of mixing federal aid with religious outreach is especially sensitive in light of Bush's plan to provide government aid to religious groups involved in social services. In El Salvador, where the entrenched Roman Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant groups, many with U.S. ties, have competed in recent years for members, the issue also has an intense local dimension.

Walz declined to say whether Samaritan's Purse is at risk of losing future funding. The ministry is in line to receive another $200,000 for El Salvador relief.

Through a spokesman, Graham denied that his evangelical Protestant ministry used the money to proselytize villagers in the Central American nation.

But spokesman Mark DeMoss also said Graham would sever his government ties before agreeing to stop preaching the Gospel around the world.

"If the U.S. AID or anybody else has a problem with the Christian nature or mission of Samaritan's Purse, he would forgo the money. It's not that big a deal. He's not dependent on it,'' DeMoss said.

The Agency for International Development provided $3.9 million of the $134 million budget that Samaritan's Purse reported last year. The ministry draws primarily on private contributors to offer relief and evangelism in more than 100 countries.

The New York Times reported Monday that Catholic Salvadorans said Samaritan's Purse representatives asked them to "accept Jesus Christ" -- meaning convert to evangelical Protestantism.

Villagers said ministry volunteers held half-hour prayer meetings before showing them how to build temporary homes provided by the U.S. government, the Times reported.

In addition to its federally funded efforts, Samaritan's Purse has used private resources to distribute evangelical tracts in El Salvador and urge individuals to accept evangelical Protestantism.

Dr. Paul Chiles, El Salvador director for Samaritan's Purse, told the Times that his group neither discriminates nor proselytizes aggressively. At the same time, he said that its mission was understood and accepted by the federal government.

"We are first a Christian organization and second an aid organization," he said. "We can't really separate the two. We really believe Jesus Christ told us to do relief work."

He said that although the group did not rely on prayer meetings when delivering aid, he did not think it was inappropriate to deliver a message of hope to people for whom religion is part of daily life.

"We definitely don't ever use the gifts that we bring as a means to change people," he said. "We distribute it to people in need. At the same time, we bring the message of the Gospel."

That message is central to its relief work, according to the group's Web page. The Web page notes that in one village where the group provided supplies, 150 Salvadorans converted after watching a movie about Jesus.

delGraham states his priorities in the Samaritan's Purse Web site:

``This gives them hope. That's the main thing - to come into a community like this and give hope to the people that they can rebuild and get their lives back together. Most important, we want to give them eternal hope, and that's faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.''

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