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Federal agency to monitor how religious group uses funds

By The Associated Press


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Francisco Cornejo, left, and Julio Torres build shelter March 6 after earthquake in Guadalupe, El Salvador, with materials donated by Samaritan's Purse and USAID.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Federal officials will try to prevent Franklin Graham's ministry from blurring the line between evangelism and the distribution of government aid, the U.S. Agency for International Development said.

In a statement released yesterday, the agency said it was responding to the "possible appearance" of a link between prayer sessions led by Samaritan's Purse of Boone and relief assistance it channeled to earthquake victims in El Salvador.

The agency intends "to work with Samaritan's Purse to ensure that they maintain adequate and sufficient separation between its prayer sessions and its USAID-funded activities," the statement said.

Samaritan's Purse, which distributes aid gathered through private donations and public grants, has denied using federal money to support its religious activities.

The group's president, the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of evangelist Billy Graham, wrote a letter to the agency yesterday promising to cooperate.

"We have always been in full compliance with the USAID regulations," said a spokesman, Mark DeMoss, "and we will look forward to continue working together wherever possible."

Nevertheless, officials with the Protestant evangelical group, which reported a budget of $134 million last year, say it will continue to proselytize as its top priority.

"Franklin is very up front about this, that when we give someone food or water, we're telling them our motivation, that we feel like God loves us and God loves them," said spokesman Jeremy Blume.

The New York Times reported this week that workers from Samaritan's Purse held half-hour prayer sessions with villagers before teaching them how to build temporary housing provided by the U.S. government.

USAID officials say they have a history of working with religious groups, but the agency's policy requires that such organizations keep separate accounts for government funds that are used for humanitarian aid and private funds used for religious activities.

An agency policy prohibits the support of activities with a significant religious content. A memo from the agency's legal office says the policy isn't clearly defined, but is based loosely on the First Amendment statement that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The issue of mixing state aid with church outreach is especially sensitive as federal agencies try to adapt to Bush's plan to provide government aid to religious groups involved in social services.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has said he wants to abolish USAID and replace it with a foundation that would distribute aid to religious groups.

Helms, a North Carolina Republican and a close friend of Franklin Graham, has cited Samaritan's Purse as the model.