FRONT ROYAL, Va. — It’s only a small, unimposing two-story wooden house on a quiet street in a sleepy northwestern Virginia town, but from this quiet base, members of Christian Freedom International strategize how to sneak doctors into Burma, supplies to oppressed Christians in Indonesia and slaves out of Sudan.
Braving perils from shootings to land mines, contagious diseases and arrest, CFI’s relief workers conduct missions in territory more befitting paramilitary groups than nonprofit organizations.
“It’s not the sort of thing for the faint of heart. It’s not a picnic,” said Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute who has accompanied CFI on trips to Burma and Indonesia. “You can’t come away without a sense just of hideous tragedy.”
The human rights advocacy group helps persecuted Christians in oppressed areas and war zones. CFI began in 1983 as the U.S. branch of the Christian Solidarity International group based in Switzerland. It broke away in 1995, and since 1998 has been functioning under its current name.
Its small staff and modest accommodations help the group maintain a low overhead. Funded by private donations and small foundation grants, the organization directed 84 percent of its $653,000 budget towards its programs in 2000.
One ethnic group to which they devote significant resources, the Karen in Burma, has been persecuted by that country’s military since the end of Word War II.
“The military junta of Burma is one of the most repressive regimes in the world,” CFI President Jim Jacobson says. “I believe the ongoing, systematic oppression in Burma, especially in the minority areas, is one of the most underreported stories of our time.”
Some 300,000 ethnic Karen, many of them sick and malnourished, hide in remote villages or flee to refugee camps on the Thai-Burmese border. CFI has developed two relief programs for them, “freedom hospitals” and “backpack medics.”
The “freedom hospitals” program constructs mobile clinics and staffs them with ethnic Karen medics. Six hospitals currently exist, each staffed with 12 medics. They are simple structures consisting of a few rooms enclosed by bamboo planks and leafy roofs. Each “freedom hospital” costs $7,740 per month to supply, staff and maintain.
In the past three years, at least five CFI field hospitals have been attacked and burned to the ground by Burmese militia.
The “backpack medic” program sends ethnic Karen trekking into Burma with a sack of medicine and Bibles to supply the hospitals and assist people in isolated areas.
CFI has also established five “jungle schools” staffed with Karen teachers. Development director Vickie Koth says these informal academies help Karen children, who usually spend their lives either bored or on the run, to get an education.
“These people, given that they’ve been oppressed and persecuted for so long, statistically speaking, could be wiped out in 10 years,” she says. “The hope being that by providing medicine and an education for these people, they can stand strong and not die out.”
For those who manage to flee the jungles, CFI gives aid at refugee camps.
The group has also established Karen orphanages, a self-help program, and a child-sponsorship program.
“Our goal is to come alongside indigenous communities and try to make them self-sufficient and free from persecution,” Mr. Jacobson says.
To create jobs for refugees, CFI purchases hand-crafted Karen products and sells them in the United States. Free-lance writer Sam Dealey, who has accompanied CFI on four trips to Burma and Indonesia in the past two years, said he can see progress as a result of CFI’s efforts.
“You can see the schools and the clinics and the good that’s doing in the community, but you also see that the Karen are losing the war and being run out of base camps,” he says.
CFI will host a “Christian Freedom Conference 2001” at the Washington Court Hotel Sept.13-14 in the District to educate the public and government about religious persecution.
“Jim ‘s whole plan is that these places are such hell holes that he wants to bring awareness to the West and the world at large,” Mr. Dealey says. “You’ve snuck into a totalitarian state in an active hot zone and you’re hearing land mines going off and shots in the distance. It’s not a cakewalk.”
Needless to say, hostile regimes are not receptive to CFI’s work.
“Most groups operate where they have permission,” Mr. Jacobson says. “But we have found that regimes that are trying to wipe out their own people never offer invitation to bring relief to their victims.”
CFI also sponsors an Indonesian project, where it distributes hammers, saws, fishnets, chisels and other necessities. It encourages business development in areas around Ambon in the Moluccas, also known as the Spice Islands. These have been devastated by a religious war that began in January 1999.
CFI also has an “underground railroad” operating in Sudan for runaway slaves. Locating needy persons through familial contacts in the United States, CFI completes paperwork, secures train tickets to Cairo, and takes care of the asylum seekers once they arrive in Egypt.
“We have worked hard to move legitimate cases of slavery and persecution from bondage to freedom, without providing financial incentives for the abduction of others,” Mr. Jacobson says. “CFI does not support slave buy-backs in Sudan or any other place.”
Its former parent organization, Christian Solidarity International, does favor the redemption of slaves. The differing philosophies over whether to offer money for slaves to Arab slave traders is what led to the split between CFI and CSI.
“CFI goes into the worst places in the world to help the people the civilized world has forgotten,” says one journalist who accompanied CFI on several trips to Southeast Asia and East Africa. “The hospitals they build are burned, but they keep building. The medics that they train are sometimes captured and killed, but they refuse to give up and that’s what makes CFI unique.”