Mormons, Muslims Team Up on Overseas Aid Projects
Religion News Service
By Adelle M. Banks
As the latest round of violence in the Middle East continues to flare between Israel and Hezbollah, two disparate religious groups — Mormons and Muslims — have pooled their resources to aid the casualties of the conflict.
Mormons, who have a long history of disaster preparedness, have the supplies. And Muslims, who consider charity one of the five pillars of Islam, have the contacts on the ground. Despite deep doctrinal differences, both groups believe helping others is a central tenet of their faiths.
During the first week of August, an MD-11 airplane filled with 85 tons of supplies — baby formula, powdered milk, medical supplies, hand soap and hygiene kits filled with toothbrushes, toothpaste and other personal products — left Salt Lake City for a Lebanese port.
“We kind of complement each other,” said Mokhtar Shawky, acting CEO of Islamic Relief, based in Buena Park, Calif. “We try to help with the transportation costs. They put the material together. We have our people overseas that distribute it to the needy.”
Garry Flake, the director of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ humanitarian emergency response, said combining forces was a matter of practicality.
“When you get into the Islamic world, they have some strengths that others of us don’t,” he said. “It’s just simply driven by the idea that there’s people in need and we reach out where an organization has a strength that we can match up to.”
Shawky estimated the recent shipment of supplies was worth $1.5 million, but church officials declined to place a value on them. Shawky’s office has allocated more than $1 million to Lebanon, Gaza and the West Bank and is working to raise a total of $6.4 million for emergency aid.
In addition to their cooperation with Islamic Relief, Latter-day Saints officials said they made a $50,000 contribution to Magen David Admon, the Israeli affiliate of the International Red Cross, to help with ambulance response, blood services and the needs of individual families.
“In this current situation, we needed to help on both sides of the line,” Flake said.
Asked if Islamic Relief had a similar position, Shawky said “This aid is being sent to Lebanon” but is available to all. “As a humanitarian organization, we try not to get involved in the politics and who’s right and who’s wrong,” he said.
Although both organizations have worked with other secular and religious groups to provide relief, their leaders say the Muslim-Mormon collaboration projects began three years ago. The church sent an aid shipment to Iraqis in 2003. Since that time, joint shipments have gone to Bangladesh and Sudan.
The two groups jointly aided victims of the Indonesian earthquake last May, sending off a shipment within days of the quake that included first-aid supplies, walkers and crutches.
Leaders of both organizations said they have worked with other groups in past relief efforts in the U.S. and abroad. The Latter-day Saints cited Catholic and Seventh-day Adventist agencies as well as nongovernmental and secular entities. Shawky said Islamic Relief has teamed up with a Los Angeles synagogue to aid people in the Sudan crisis and Gulf Coast churches to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina.
The overseas connections of Islamic Relief, both in the Middle East and elsewhere, are linked with a long-term tradition among Mormons. Church members periodically make a “fast offering,” donating the money they would have spent on food to aid others.
“That fast offering concept has allowed the church to bless the lives of millions of people,” said Neil Newell, a spokesman for the church’s Welfare Services Department. “We have farms and storehouses and canneries where people come and prepare food up against the time where others might need it.”
Church officials estimate that from 1985-2005, more than $800 million in material and cash assistance were donated to humanitarian causes in more than 160 countries.
Sometimes, efforts to aid also cross faith lines at the grass-roots level.
Flake said that by the time the aid arrived in Indonesia earlier this year, local Mormon congregations had already delivered 6,000 meals to hospital patients.
“That person-to-person part, I think, is as critical as the organizations working together,” he said.
“The individuals at the lowest level from the grass-roots setting,…perhaps setting differences and beliefs aside and just responding to the needs of everyday people.”