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Evangelicals Using USAID To Make Africa Inroads

by Bill Berkowitz

Bush Turned Foreign Aid Into Strategic Weapon After 9/11

(IPS) -- U.S.- based Christian evangelical organizations that view some of the small countries in that continent as an opportunity for religious, political and social transformation are using the AIDS pandemic as an entry point.

Working in concert with these groups is the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). And that's where Paul Bonicelli comes in.

In October, Bonicelli, the former dean of academic affairs at Patrick Henry College -- a small fundamentalist Christian college located in rural Virginia -- was appointed last October by the Bush administration to oversee USAID programs as the new deputy assistant administrator at the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance.

A USAID press release said his responsibilities "will focus on four primary goals of strengthening the rule of law and respect for human rights; promoting more genuine and competitive elections and political processes; increasing development of a politically active civil society; and implementing a more transparent and accountable governance."

While Bonicelli's appointment first appeared to be another example of the Bush administration's propensity to fill important positions with largely unqualified supporters, a posting at the Herescope blog argued that his ties to Patrick Henry College made the selection of Bonicelli highly significant "because USAID has been a major player in the 'transformation' of the African continent."

Herescope pays close attention to the activities of major U.S. Christian evangelical organizations in Africa, and its research places the appointment of Paul Bonicelli in a broader political context.

Herescope is organized by the Discernment Research Group, a project of Discernment Ministries Inc. In 1989, long-time pastors Travers and Jewel van der Merwe founded the ministry because they had become "deeply concerned with what they perceived within the church as a radical shift away from the authority of Scripture." Herescope is dedicated to "revealing heresies and false teachings affecting the Church today."

In December 2002, via a Bush executive order, a Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives was established at USAID. The USAID center, like the others created at more than a dozen other U.S. agencies, encourages faith-based groups to participate in its initiatives.

In February 2004, Christianity Today magazine's deputy managing editor, Timothy C. Morgan, interviewed Anne Peterson, a former missionary doctor to Zimbabwe and Zaire who was appointed by the Bush administration as head of global health for USAID.

Among other issues, Morgan asked her about the administration's policies regarding AIDS in Africa, and for a comment on the work Christian evangelical groups were performing there.

Peterson said "there's a huge role" for Christian groups "because [AIDS] is an issue that fits with the Christian message. And the prevention of AIDS fits with the righteous living and moral standpoint [of Christianity].

"But equally important is the church's role in giving a message of forgiveness, of compassion, of caring for the sick, of caring for the widows and orphans," she added. "There's almost no part of the AIDS epidemic where the faith orientation doesn't have a very, very strong message."

A posting on the USAID Web site underscores Peterson's remarks: "Community and faith-based organizations have a critical role to play in the provision of HIV/AIDS prevention, care and treatment," it says.

"They possess an extensive geographic reach and a well-developed infrastructure in the developing world. This, in addition to their unmatched staying power, makes them an invaluable asset in the fight against the HIV/AIDS pandemic."

In his 2003 State of the Union address, Bush proposed spending $15 billion fighting AIDS and other diseases in Africa over a five-year period.

In June 2004, he told a Philadelphia audience: "I think our country needs a practical, effective and moral message. In addition to other kinds of prevention, we need to tell our children that abstinence is the only certain way to avoid contracting HIV. It works every time."

Four months later, the administration announced that $100 million in new grants for abstinence-focused programs -- as part of the president's $15 billion Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in 12 sub-Saharan African nations, Haiti and Guyana -- went to 11 groups, including nine faith-based organizations.

The Emergency Plan stresses abstinence and is built around the controversial "ABC" approach, which stands for "Abstain, Be faithful, or use a Condom."

Anne Peterson called ABC "a balanced approach" in an interview with the Washington Times. She also acknowledged, however, that "it has provoked great debate in the international public health community, which for many years emphasized condom distribution over behavior-change programs."

A brochure on USAID Web site titled "Faith-Based Partnerships" pointed out that U.S. evangelical groups have undertaken a number of faith-based initiatives in Africa.

One of the projects listed among the examples of USAID partnerships with faith-based organizations -- Dr. Bruce Wilkinson's Dream for Africa based in Swaziland -- appears not to have turned out so well.

Swaziland, one of Africa's smallest counties, is located between Mozambique and South Africa and has one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS rates.

According to USAID, Wilkinson "has trained pastors on ways of talking appropriately and effectively to their congregations about abstinence until marriage, fidelity to one's partner, and reducing stigma. Unequal treatment of women contributes to the spread of HIV/AIDS, so he challenged pastors to make clear to their congregations that men and women are, according to their own sacred text, created equal."

Wilkinson had hoped to build a 32,500-acre complex that "would house, educate, and feed children whose parents had died of AIDS [and] would also have a golf course and other tourist attractions," Christianity Today reported.

After his request for the land was criticized in the press and turned down, Wilkinson, who received a great deal of positive publicity in 2002 when he left his home in Georgia and relocated to Africa to focus on HIV/AIDS issues, decided to leave Africa. It has been reported that he has quit his ministry as well.

For years, U.S. Christian evangelical organizations have been doing charitable, relief and recruiting work in Africa. And it appears to have paid off. In August 2004, The New Republic's Andrew Rice reported that the World Christian Encyclopedia noted that while 17 million Africans attended Pentecostal churches in 1970, that number had jumped to "more than 125 million ... roughly 19 percent of the continent's population."

And demographers were predicting that the continent's Christian population will nearly double by 2025 to 633 million.

Politically, that's good news for the Bush administration which, since its war on Iraq, has lost more friends than it gained.

In his new role at USAID, Paul Bonicelli is in a position to help ensure that evangelical faith-based organizations, steeped in the reactionary politics of the Christian Right, receive a lion's share of money from Bush's Emergency Plan.

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Albion Monitor January 18, 2006 (

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