What work are you doing in Iraq?
A number of programs. Caritas' nutrition program focuses on the needs of malnourished children under 5, as well as pregnant and lactating mothers. Last year the program reached 22,000 children and 18,000 mothers; infant mortality rates dropped significantly.
Another program is potable water and sanitation. Because of the deterioration of Iraq's water systems, waterborne diseases are a main contributor to infant mortality. So we repair existing water systems or build new ones. Last year that program reached about 175,000 people.
We worked directly with the archdiocese of Basra to distribute medicine and vocational education. These programs form the basis of the kind of humanitarian assistance we would provide vis-à-vis the ongoing situation.
Has the oil for food program been effective?
It's been a very important safety net for the Iraqi people, but has been stretched for something it wasn't meant for originally. About 60% of the Iraqi population is dependent on that program for food.
Unfortunately, it's not enough. It was designed to be a supplement to people's income. But it's evolved into the sole source because of the lack of employment and the difficulties families have had--not only as a result of policies of Iraqi government, but also because of the sanctions.
When a needy person walks into a Caritas center, would they see crosses, religious pamphlets, and so forth?
No proselytism is done through the program. The people who go to Caritas centers reflect the general population in the country. In Iraq, that means anywhere from 95-97% are Muslim. The Caritas network and Catholic Relief Services and individual Caritas feel strongly that our programs should be provided based on need, not creed.
I've never seen religious education pamphlets in any Caritas center I've been in. I've seen crosses in some. They're not displayed prominently, nor are they hidden. People who inquire into the identity of Caritas can find out readily that there is a Christian base. But if you look at the logos of Caritas you generally do not see a cross.
Is there any anecdotal evidence that some Iraqis or other Middle Eastern Muslims shun your services because they know you're Christian?
I've never heard of cases such as that. If a family sees a center in the neighborhood, they would ask around and find out by word of mouth that services are provided based on need not creed. It's that informal network that would have to kick in for people to not come. Based on the numbers we see, if it were more than an isolated case I would be very surprised.
It hasn't been a topic of discussion I've had with Caritas or other partner organizations. I've heard of other Christian organizations in the region who have more of a mix of social outreach with proselytism, but it hasn't been an issue.
Franklin Graham's relief agency, Samaritans' Purse, says it's ready to bring aid to Iraqis whenever it's greenlighted. They have a more overtly proselytizing stance. Do you think this could be a bad thing on the ground in Iraq?
I'd hate to speculate on that. [To proselytize is] a decision that CRS and Caritas, institutionally, have not made. I've worked in many countries throughout the world and I very much believe in our own institutional approach: need, not creed. In Muslim communities, when people have asked me personally about my own faith-when they ask me whether I'm Christian or whether CRS was Christian-they are very respectful of other people's views, and feel strongly a certain connection that we do believe in one God. That mutual respect among religions--letting our actions and concerns for each other, as part of one human family, show--is the gospel message that we would want to convey to people that we work with.
Many Christian preachers in America don't think Islam is the right path. Have you met with any anti-Christian sentiment in your work specifically because of such rhetoric?
I can't say that I've met any anti-Christian sentiment because of groups that have proselytized. There are always different tensions between different groups. That particular tension is one we haven't been involved with. But again, proselytizing is not CRS' approach.
What should aid workers going to Iraq know?
I would encourage them to learn that Iraq has a very long and proud history as a people. To take time to understand the culture and the people. Provide as much assistance as you can, but within the framework of respect for the people and the culture. Don't expect that our role as Americans or Christians or foreigners is simply to teach the local people. Rather, there should be a relationship of mutual respect.
It's very difficult to say at this point in time that there is a clash of religions. There's a religious dimension to it, but also culture, standard of living, and other things that influence it. So I would urge people not to oversimplify.
Right now, is everyone in Caritas' Iraqi centers OK?
Contact was made yesterday afternoon [Wednesday April 2], and people are doing OK. We haven't received reports of any damage to any of the buildings. They're getting stretched thin in terms of supplies--food, medicine, and water-purification tablets are all getting used up. We're just hoping we can get new supplies in before those run out.