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A volunteer from the Church of Scientology directed refugees seeking assistance in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The organization is using massage therapy, which it calls ‘‘nerve assists,’’ to treat survivors of the tsunami.
A volunteer from the Church of Scientology directed refugees seeking assistance in Banda Aceh, Indonesia. The organization is using massage therapy, which it calls ‘‘nerve assists,’’ to treat survivors of the tsunami. (Globe Staff Photo / Essdras M. Suarez)

In Indonesia, some groups mix relief, religion

BANDA ACEH, Indonesia -- In a tent near the center of town, under a banner that reads ''trauma center," volunteer ministers from the Church of Scientology administer their brand of grief counseling to tsunami victims, which includes massages.

In another tent, at a mosque several miles down a main road, members of a militant Islamic group known for attacking bars and nightclubs during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, prepare to give thousands of homeless people a heavy dose of religious counseling.

In yet another corner of the city, a Christian evangelist from Wisconsin says the people of the overwhelmingly Muslim province of Aceh ''need Jesus." Other Christian groups were spearheading an effort to take orphans from Aceh to be raised in Christian orphanages in Jakarta, Indonesia's capital.

Weeks after the Indonesian government welcomed all groups to come and assist following a devastating tsunami, several organizations are competing for the hearts and minds of the estimated 400,000 people displaced by the disaster and living in temporary camps in northern Sumatra.

While large, secular aid organizations address the physical needs of survivors, some controversial religious groups have found a niche attending to the emotional needs of people such as Mukhlis, 25, a bus conductor's assistant who lost his parents, brother, and nephew.

Mukhlis, a shy, lanky man in a blue shirt with a butterfly collar, did not know whether the Scientologists were doctors or ministers when they invited him to lie on a cot for a two-fingered massage in a basement room of the mosque where he camps out.

''I didn't have any thought about them," he said. ''They asked people who don't feel very healthy to go to their place. After I got that [massage], it soothed my mind so that I could be a little bit more relaxed about what happened, that I lost my family and my home."

In a small room at the Darussalam mosque east of the city center, foreign volunteers from the Church of Scientology have taken on the role of grief counselors, using many of the tactics that have made the group a target of critics around the world who liken it to a cult.

About 60 volunteer ministers from the Church of Scientology -- 20 from the United States -- will soon be providing counseling in the area, many with only a few hours of training, according to Greg Bromwell, 47, of the International Scientology Assist Team in Perth, Australia. Often confused with medics or the Red Cross, they offer the back massages, known as ''nerve assists," to tsunami victims and aid workers -- as well as an introduction to the philosophy of self-improvement that makes up the backbone of the religion.

Bromwell insists that his group is ''not interested in converts."

''This is a Muslim community, and we respect that," he said, adding that six Muslim clerics had come from Jakarta to help provide the nerve assists. ''We're actually, believe it or not, here to help the people."

Still, a website connected to the group appealed for donations to pay for printing and distributing a million copies of a booklet on morality written by the group's founder, the late L. Ron Hubbard, to areas affected by the tsunami.

Militants' vow of faithAcross town, in the yard of a different mosque, another group was making plans to minister to tsunami victims' state of mind.

The Islamic Defender Front, a militant group best known for Ramadan attacks in a Jakarta neighborhood popular with expatriates, intends to bring 3,000 members to Banda Aceh from across Indonesia to work with displaced people, providing spiritual guidance to ensure that they do not lose faith in God.

''I see people moving away from religion, questioning, 'Why us?' " said Hilmy Bakar Almascati, head of the Islamic Defender volunteers in Banda Aceh.

That is unacceptable, he said, because Aceh was the first place in Indonesia to be touched by Islam, in the 13th century. ''For the Indonesian community, Aceh is very special; we call it the veranda of Mecca," he said.

To prevent a loss of faith, the group intends to concentrate on reconstructing ''not only buildings, but teaching from the Koran," he said.

Another radical Islamic group, known as the Indonesian Mujahideen Council, or the MMI, which was founded by a cleric affiliated with Al Qaeda who is now on trial for crimes related to inciting terrorism, also has set up a relief operation here. But their arrival was not without controversy.

The Free Aceh Movement, a rebel group fighting for independence from Indonesia, issued a statement that said the organizations were not welcome, and that their arrival was a plot to shift the allegiance of Acehnese away from the rebels and toward Muslims allied with the government.

The organizations' words and actions ''contradict Islamic teachings and the tolerance and faith of Acehnese Muslims," read the rebels' statement, issued from the group's office in Stockholm.

But if Muslims were divided over which faction should be allowed to operate in Aceh, they were unanimous in their opposition to Christian evangelizing in the province, which has been closed off to foreigners for much of the past decade because of the civil war with separatists.

An outspoken voiceAlthough most Christian groups keep a low profile and go out of their way not to mix their humanitarian mission with a religious message, one evangelist -- Mark Kosinski, of Wisconsin -- has been outspoken about his mission. ''These people need food, but they also need Jesus," Kosinski told the Associated Press last week. ''God is trying to awaken people and help them realize that salvation is in Christ."

Several US and Indonesia-based Christian groups have launched fund-raising campaigns based on the idea that they would adopt Acehnese orphans and raise them in Christian homes so as to ''plant the seed" of Christianity early. Yesterday, the Indonesian government announced that one such group, the Virginia-based WorldHelp, was no longer welcome in Aceh after the group claimed it had been given permission to airlift 300 children from Aceh to Jakarta to be raised in Christian homes.

On Friday, the country's most influential group of Islamic clerics, the Indonesian Council of Ulemas, warned that Christians must not proselytize or take children out of the province.

So far, the Indonesian government has not hindered the work of the Scientologists. Founded in 1954 by Hubbard, a science fiction writer, the group takes as one of its sacred texts his book ''Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health," which eschews most elements of mainstream therapy.

Over the years, senior members of the group have been accused of defrauding members of tens of thousands of dollars by aggressively pushing the church's expensive self-help courses as well as examinations on a machine called an electropsychometer, which the group says measures the human psyche.

Over the past few decades, the Church of Scientology has shown up after earthquakes and disasters around the world, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, where the group largely operated under a different name, and in Beslan, during the hostage crisis at a school in the Russian city. In Beslan, the local government swiftly asked law enforcement to shut down the group's operation, arguing that its psychological tactics could be harmful for hostage survivors, according to Russian news reports.

But in Banda Aceh, the Church of Scientology is so unknown and trauma from the tsunami so widespread that it has made swift inroads, giving massages to the Indonesian military and training university students and large groups of volunteers.

Scientology's major foothold in Indonesia seems to be a company called Criminon, which teaches Hubbard's texts to juveniles in Indonesian prisons.

Under a banner that reads ''Penanganan," which means trauma center in the local language, the Scientologists have set up tents with cots where they administer nerve assists and an exercise they call a ''locational," during which a volunteer minister points to an object and asks a tsunami survivor to look closely at it.

The last stage of the counseling, Bromwell said, is called ''the technology," where survivors close their eyes and run through details of the disaster over and over again.

''It discharges and it lessens and lessens and lessens it," he said.

Seeking solaceOn a recent day, in a gymnasium-like room in a museum down the street from the governor's residence, 70 Indonesian volunteers reclined on mats, eating dinner and smoking cigarettes amid a stack of body bags. A frustrated Scientologist tried to demonstrate the nerve assist to those who were listening.

After the demonstration, Dr. Mohammad Taufik, a 41-year-old Indonesian gynecologist, said he thought the exercise might be useful to relieve stress.

He himself was stressed, faced with trying to reopen Banda Aceh's only mental hospital in a matter of days, with only one psychiatrist, a few clean consultation rooms, and nearly an entire population traumatized.

He held a short, handwritten list of people and organizations that might help the hospital get back on its feet. High on the list was Criminon.

''They are welcome to come," he said of the Scientologists, although he acknowledged that he knew nothing about them.

''We still have to confirm with the head of the mental hospital. We are still learning about them," he said, but added, ''we have to work with whatever we have." 

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