Should taxpayer money be given to Christian organizations for humanitarian work in the developing world?
That's the question being raised by a new University of Quebec study that says Christian relief and development groups have been favoured since the Conservative government came to power.
According to the study by political science professor Franßois Audet, from March 2005 until 2010, funding from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for religious NGOs increased 42 per cent, from $90 million to $129 million. In the same period, funding for 141 secular NGOs increased only five per cent, from $226 million to $237 million.
Predictably, the study prompted calls for the government to cease giving money to faith-based aid organizations. In response, an official at CIDA said grants are awarded on merit, with funding going to "programs that are most likely to yield tangible results."
Even if it's true that faith groups -- Christian NGOs, in particular -- are getting more funding, would that be a surprise?
Not to former CBC senior correspondent Brian Stewart. During his travels in some of the world's poorest and most conflicted countries, he discovered it's virtually impossible to go anyplace where Christians aren't busy helping people in need.
"I've found there is no movement or force closer to the raw truth of war, famines, crises and the vast human predicament than organized Christianity in action," he said in a 2004 speech at the convocation of Knox College in Toronto.
"And there is no alliance more determined and dogged in action than church workers, ordained and lay members, when mobilized for a common good.
"It is these Christians who are right on the front lines of committed humanity today, and when I want to find that front, I follow their trail," he said.
He continued: "I've never reached a war zone, or famine group, or crisis anywhere where some church organization was not there long before me -- sturdy, remarkable souls usually too kind to ask: 'What took you so long?' "
When it comes to helping people who are poor and needy, Christians have a long history. They take inspiration from the words of Jesus, who told his followers to give food to the hungry and water to the thirsty.
Here in Canada, Christians have taken that exhortation to heart, creating dozens of organizations to offer help for some of the world's neediest people.
But the critics are right on one thing: Just because church groups are doing lots of work around the world doesn't mean the government should give them money. And if it does, that money should never be used for religious purposes.
To help prevent that, in 1995, representatives from CIDA and church-related NGOs met to develop understandings about the nature of their partnership, including the relationship between the relief and development activities of Christian NGOs and their other religious activities and objectives.
At the meeting, it was agreed there is considerable overlap between the humanitarian and development goals of church groups and the goals of CIDA, and that this provided a good basis for partnership.
Representatives from the two groups agreed that while CIDA could support church-related NGOs, government funding was not to be used for programs designed to convert people from one faith to another or for other religious programming.
They also agreed the Canadian government did not have to agree with every position held by church groups, or vice versa. Church groups and the government could respect and accept each other's differences in the effort to help people in need.
This understanding has served CIDA and church-related NGOs well for 18 years, and continues to do so. It has allowed church-related NGOs and the Canadian government to extend their reach, allowing each to leverage their resources to make them go further.
Today, the way the Canadian government helps people in the developing world is changing. CIDA is gone, merged into the new Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development.
But CIDA officials say the mandate and methods won't change; they still intend to honour past agreements and work with partners to reduce poverty around the world. This will include church groups.
A final comment from Stewart: Near the end of his speech, he recalled the time the small plane he was travelling in had to make an emergency refuelling stop at a nearly deserted landing strip in the central African jungle.
"We stepped out into the middle of absolutely nowhere, it seemed, only to be greeted by a cheerful Dutch Reform minister offering tea," he said. "My veteran cameraman later sighed in exasperation: 'Do you think you could ever get us to a story, somewhere, anywhere where those Christians aren't there first?'
"I was never able to."