BAGHDAD, 23 May 2007 (IRIN) - Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have reaffirmed their professional, secular and humanitarian principles after accusations they were "missionaries in disguise". The accusations were that Christian missionaries in Kurdistan have been using aid to entice young Muslims to convert to Christianity.
"We aren't forcing people to convert to Christianity. Our duty is to assist Iraqis who desperately need assistance. In the course of our work, sometimes we find people who want to know more about Christ and his beliefs and if they decide to convert, it isn't because we are forcing them or promising them money," said Eduardo Marotto, spokesperson for the Christ's Peace Organisation, a missionary Christian organisation which provides aid in Iraq.
"Any person is free to choose his religion and it is not up to us to be responsible for that. They are adult enough to choose their beliefs. If someone asks me about my religion I am happy to speak but never offer material goods to help them to convert. Our work is only to deliver humanitarian assistance," Marotto added.
According to local NGOs there are many Christian missionaries in Iraq but they keep a low profile and operate mainly in the more secure districts of Baghdad or in northern provinces.
"The information received by our organisation is that those missionaries are engaged in providing assistance, and are professional enough not to mix religion and the provision of aid," said Fatah Ahmed, spokesperson for the Iraq Aid Association (IAA).
"We have been contacted three times by missionaries who want to cooperate with us in aid projects in Kirkuk province and their neutrality was clear from the beginning," Ahmed said.
"NGOs should adhere to international laws which guarantee neutrality to aid agencies. They should be non-religious organisations, especially in countries of conflict like Iraq, and they should never mix their ideologies with their work of dispensing aid," Ahmed added.
Bogus aid workers
Cedric Turlan, information officer for the NGO Coordinating Committee in Iraq (NCCI), said there are a number of organisations which are implementing other agendas under the cover of providing humanitarian aid. These are agendas that can be political, religious or military. This is true of local organisations as well as foreign organisations, he said.
"There are many organisations in Iraq, local and foreign, which are not neutral and impartial as a humanitarian organisation should be. Most of them are not real NGOs as they do not comply with the internationally recognised definition of what a humanitarian NGO is," Turlan noted.
"The overall objective of humanitarian aid is, and should be, to provide lifesaving assistance and alleviate suffering. Even some non-humanitarian actors [military, private companies, non-state armed groups] have presented some of their activities as 'humanitarian' thereby blurring the line and reinforcing misperceptions. This can have a serious impact on the security of legitimate aid workers," he added.
Turlan went on to say that "humanitarian aid agencies and NGOs have to strike a balance between these principles and managing everyday realities to achieve their stated goals without compromising their integrity. In this context it is important for NGOs to remember that there is a hierarchy within the principles of the Code of Conduct for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Relief (CoC). At the top of this hierarchy is the absolute commitment that 'the humanitarian imperative comes first'."
Professor Mustafa Abdallah, a humanitarian analyst at Mustansiriyah University, said: "The suggestion that foreign aid agencies are 'missionaries in disguise' can directly affect the work of foreign aid workers and increase the dangers facing them in Iraq, as extremists might consider the suggestion to be true and target any aid worker in Iraq without taking their neutrality into account."
"If missionaries are working in Iraq, they should be clear about their intention to protect foreign aid workers and highlight the neutrality and impartiality that is the main characteristic of a humanitarian NGO," Abdallah added.