Medical Missionaries Suffer Fate of their Religious Predecessors

The news of the murders of five Pakistani female aid workers in Karachi has led to international condemnation the world over. How could anyone wish to kill women seemingly performing such a benevolent act? Accusations have quickly been made towards the Taliban who believe such UN-backed programmes as polio eradication (for which the women were working) are a cover to spy on their activities. This, after a fake Hepatitis vaccination campaign sponsored by the CIA helped lead to the discovery of Osama bin Laden in 2011.

Such a reaction is shocking but not unusual. By October, 149 foreign or foreign-sponsored aid workers had been the victims of serious attacks around the world in 2012. One of the more recent attacks involved the kidnapping of six African aid workers in Niger in October. The NGOs they represented claimed that the aid workers had “no other goal than to alleviate the most precarious humanitarian situations” in the region. This is a common denominator for most aid workers abroad and makes attacks on them the more dissatisfying.

A Kenyan aid worker after his kidnapping in June
A Kenyan aid worker after his kidnapping in June

The motives for the attacks, murders and kidnappings of aid workers today are the same that prompted assaults on the religious missionaries of the Early Modern period. Namely; the opposition to foreign influence; political motivation; and money.

Many will quickly point out that the religious missions of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries (and for convenience I shall focus on the predominant Catholic missions) are not comparable to today’s aid workers in terms of their altruistic intentions. However, the Catholic Church was so convinced of its superiority and so frightened by the ‘misguided’ beliefs of the pagan people revealed to them by the Age of Exploration that they really believed their intentions to be noble. The piety of many of the missionaries, Jesuit and Franciscan in particular, encouraged them to take dangerous journeys across alien seas and lands to carry out their work for the good of the world’s population.

The early Catholic missions were driven by a conviction of goodness
The early Catholic missions were driven by a conviction of goodness

For many indigenous populations, unaccustomed to outsiders and rooted in centuries-old traditions, such interference was detested. In a more extreme example, twenty-six Catholic missionaries were executed in Nagasaki, Japan on the 5th February 1597 in a bid by the political authorities to suppress the growing religion of the outsider. This was not an isolated event and was repeated throughout the New World, Asia and Africa. This in turn encouraged the formation of missionary armies, whereby indigenous people were suppressed by force before having little choice but to take the Catholic faith.

The 26 Martyrs of Japan were executed as the Tokugawa clan rose to power
The 26 Martyrs of Japan were executed as the Tokugawa clan rose to power

Contemporary interference in a state by outside forces is more common given the era of globalisation. Yet it does not prevent resentment. The attacks on foreign aid workers often result from a genuine conviction that they are upsetting local cultures and forcing indigenous populations into a life that is anathema to their traditional customs. Some may argue that this desire for foreign powers to ‘protect’ both their aid workers and the supposedly suffering local population abroad has helped create the conditions for military intervention.

The murder or kidnapping of aid workers also invariably serves a political purpose. This also applied to the days of the great Christian missions. In the early fifteenth century, Francisco Alvarez, a Portuguese Franciscan, sought the court of Lebna Dengel, the King of Ethiopia. Alleged by the Portuguese to be Prester John, the legendary ruler of Christian lore who preserved the faith amidst heathen neighbours, Lebna Dengel forced Alvarez to accompany his travelling court around his kingdom. During this time of effective captivity, Alvarez was persuaded of Lebna Dengel’s sincere Christian nature (despite obvious signs to the contrary) and requested military support for the Ethiopian from his Portuguese monarch. Lebna Dengel kept up the pretence until all his local enemies were vanquished and his rule secure.

Kidnapping aid workers today has a more blunt political affect. It can help to publicise a particular separatist or terrorist group and get governments to listen to their demands. Boko Haram in Nigeria increased its international profile through kidnapping foreign aid and oil workers. In another notorious case, Abu Sayyaf militants kidnapped International Red Cross workers in the Philippines winning months of news headlines. Similarly, these acts can reinforce in the minds of the local population who wields true power and influence. Such is the reason for many of the Taliban attacks. When foreign encroachment, military or civilian, into their territorial strongholds becomes apparent they respond with devastating action. Civilian targets, such as foreign or foreign-sponsored aid workers, are often the easiest targets.

Finally, there is money. In this case, ransom is ransom. International aid workers attract the publicity that can generate worthy hostage prices and individuals or groups exploit this for no other reason but monetary gain. During the Jesuit missions to China in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, groups of bandits indulged in the kidnapping of priests and subsequently demanding a ransom from the missionary headquarters.

Unfortunately, thousands of people worldwide find themselves at risk of these attacks. Increasingly, they are being conducted on fellow countrymen who work for international organisations able to pay them a living wage they would otherwise not attain. This was the case for the tragically murdered Pakistani polio workers. Such people are courageous, as were their religious forebears. Whatever people may think of the morality of outside ‘interference’ in the affairs of another state or political entity, we must laud the continuation of the modern-day missions.

A further example:

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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