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 CNS Story:

TSUNAMI-MACLAREN Feb-14-2005 (630 words) xxxi

Caritas official says agency must spend tsunami donations wisely

By Anto Akkara
Catholic News Service

NEW DELHI, India (CNS) -- Amid an unprecedented flow of donations for Caritas Internationalis' tsunami relief fund, the charity wing of the church is watching its steps to ensure that the funds are spent prudently.

"We have collected so far $350 million, which is unprecedented for us," said Duncan MacLaren, secretary-general of the Vatican-based Caritas Internationalis. "But, it also means we have a great responsibility to spend that money wisely on behalf of the people."

In a telephone interview from Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he was visiting Feb. 11, MacLaren said that "unwise spending of the money could lead to a lot of harm to the community we serve. This is, of course, a huge challenge for us."

"Moved by the powerful media images" of the Dec 26 tsunami disaster that devastated Indian Ocean nations, he said, people all over the world donated to the Caritas tsunami relief fund.

"We have a duty to fulfill the expectations of the donors and ensure that these donations are used to really benefit the victims," he reiterated.

Though most of the donations to Caritas have come from Europe and North America, MacLaren pointed out that "the wave of compassion was spread worldwide."

He noted that even the bishops' conference of Ecuador, a relatively poor country, contributed $100,000 for the Caritas tsunami fund.

To coordinate the tsunami work efficiently, Caritas convened a donors' meeting at the Vatican in late January with representatives from tsunami-affected nations.

While the emergency relief work is virtually over, MacLaren said Caritas Internationalis is now moving into the crucial stage of helping local Caritas agencies erect temporary shelters and livelihood programs for the tsunami victims before building permanent houses in collaboration with the local authorities.

In Sri Lanka, Caritas will spend $40 million for temporary shelters for 24,000 families and a livelihood program that includes providing boats and nets for the fishermen who are the worst victims of the tsunami in the island nation.

The international agency is also supporting Caritas India with nearly $80 million for a six-month emergency program and a 30-month rehabilitation and reconstruction program to enable the tsunami victims to "resume their daily activities with dignity."

In Thailand, the local church has shouldered the initial relief work while Caritas is in contact with Thai church officials about supporting their long-term rehabilitation plans.

But, MacLaren said, the "biggest challenge" for his agency is Indonesia.

With no functioning Caritas in the majority Muslim nation (due to government restrictions), MacLaren said Caritas has pledged support of more than $20 million for the U.S. bishops' Catholic Relief Services, which is leading the church relief work in the country.

"In Indonesia, it is a very delicate situation. They have to work in a very sensitive situation because it is overwhelmingly Muslim," MacLaren said.

He added that "some groups of Christians have come in with Bible in one hand and aid in the other."

"They are making it really difficult for (the) rest of us, because they are going around proselytizing these victims. In Aceh, they were not only endangering our people, but also endangering the lives" of those working with church charities, he added.

"Caritas is a humanitarian agency, and we help people regardless of faith," MacLaren said. The Indonesian authorities, he suggested, "should make a distinction between proselytizing groups and organizations like Caritas that have lot of experience in helping people in distress regardless of creed."

On their part, MacLaren said, church charities in Indonesia were trying to work with organizations of other faiths and putting in mechanisms like purchasing goods from shops owned by people of different faiths to the ease tensions.

"It is important (that) our work is coordinated under the leadership of the local church to avoid misunderstandings or cultural mistakes," he added.


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