Christian Right kidnappers

February 17, 2010

Nicole Colson reports on the accusations against missionaries who were arrested after trying to take Haitian children out of the country--and the media's tolerant attitude.

"HELP US...That's the message I would give to Mr. Obama and the State Department. Start helping us."

You might think that was the plea of a Haitian citizen following the devastating earthquake in January. But no, those words came from Carla Thompson--one of a group of 10 U.S. missionaries arrested by Haitian authorities on January 29, accused of trying to kidnap 33 Haitian children and take them across the border into the Dominican Republic.

At least 22 of the supposed "orphans" were found to have at least one parent still alive in Haiti.

The 10 missionaries are mostly from a Baptist church based in Idaho. Following the earthquake, the group apparently set out with a trailer full of children's clothes and a vow to help Haiti's orphans "find healing, hope, joy and new life in Christ." The group's creepy leader, Laura Silsby, told reporters: "God wanted us to come here to help children, we are convinced of that. Our hearts were in the right place."

But Silsby at least knew that the missionaries were flouting the law. In a letter to the United Nations, Anne-Christine d'Adesky, a writer and human rights activist, said she met with Silsby on January 24 in a hotel in the Dominican Republic. Silsby allegedly told d'Adesky that her authorization to pick up Haitian orphans and bring them into the Dominican Republic came from an unnamed Dominican official.

American missionary Laura Silsby behind bars in Haiti
American missionary Laura Silsby behind bars in Haiti

"I informed her that this would be regarded as illegal, even with some 'Dominican' minister authorizing, since the children are Haitian," d'Adesky wrote, adding that she directed Silsby to UN agencies dealing with orphans and adoptions in the country.

D'Adesky told the Wall Street Journal that Silsby responded: "We have been sent by the Lord to rescue these children, and if it's in the Lord's plan, we will be successful."

Silsby's personal motives may not have been so noble. Back home in Idaho, she faces a string of lawsuits for allegedly failing to pay employees of her Web site shopping business. MSNBC noted that "the $358,000 house at which she founded her nonprofit religious group, New Life Children's Refuge, was foreclosed upon in December." Which raises the question of whether Silsby thought she might have profited from arranging for Haitian children to be adopted by people in the U.S.

The other people with Silsby on her "mission," including at least two teenagers, may have been victims of their own arrogance and stupidity--but that doesn't excuse their crime. On the contrary, there's something stomach-turning about using a tragedy like the earthquake in Haiti to promote religious beliefs. (Right-wing Christians aren't the only ones guilty--the Church of Scientology flew in volunteers after the quake to "minister" to Haitians.)

In the case of Silsby's group, the Eastside Baptist Church Web site laid out the missionaries' plans for a "Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission." According to the itinerary for January 23, the group would "Drive bus from Santo Domingo into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and gather 100 orphans from the streets and collapsed orphanages, then return to the D.R."

The group apparently planned to take the children to a hotel in the Dominican Republic, where they would live until a permanent orphanage was constructed. According to the New York Times, the Web site said the group would "strive" to "provide opportunities for adoption through partnership with New Life Adoption Foundation," which subsidizes adoptions "for loving Christian parents who would otherwise not be able to afford to adopt."

There's no evidence that the missionaries were in any way prepared to care for the children they planned to "gather" from the streets--it's unknown whether any spoke Haitian Kreyol or had any familiarity with the country's culture or legal system.

Even in the best of times, international adoptions can be fraught with corruption and difficult questions about the rights of birth parents. Those questions are especially complicated when the adoptive parents are white and wealthy, and the birth parents and children are poor and people of color. Closed adoptions, where all ties are cut between children and their birth parents, are especially prone to abuses.

In Haiti, it seems that the desperate parents contacted by the missionaries weren't told that their children might one day be adopted. Instead, they were told the children would be cared for and schooled in the Dominican Republic--and that they could visit one another. "If someone offers to take my children to a paradise," a mother told the New York Times, "am I supposed to say no?"

As adoption expert David Smolin of Cumberland Law School commented in the New York Times:

The risks are very high that children with families would be "adopted" into families in the United States, based on the pretense that they are "orphans." We know from past history that those children most likely would never be returned to their original families, even if those original families were able to find them and sought their return.

IN SPITE of the fact that the missionaries are accused on strong evidence of kidnapping and child trafficking, the U.S. media has positively fawned over them--stopping just short of portraying them as the victims.

In one story after another, the missionaries have been allowed to plead their innocence--and even complain that the Obama administration has not done enough to help them. Typical was the Today show, which described the "frustrating few days" in jail for people "who insist they had only the best intentions."

Imagine the level of sympathy in the media if the disaster had been, say, a hurricane in South Florida, and a group of Black missionaries, or perhaps Muslims, from another country came to "rescue" white children in the U.S.--with "only the best intentions."

One writer for the right-wing National Review, Kathryn Jean Lopez, even stooped to citing a Human Rights Watch report detailing the deplorable conditions in Haiti's prisons--as if the American missionaries have been suffering like an ordinary prisoners. On the contrary, the alleged kidnappers have been giving access to the media, were allowed to speak to relatives via satellite phone, have a large legal team of American lawyers standing by and were allowed to receive food and other supplies from other missionaries.

That's a far cry from conditions a couple hundred miles to the west, at the U.S. government's Guantánamo Bay prison camp. As's Glenn Greenwald pointed out, referring to one of the missionaries, Jim Allen, singled out by right wingers:

Why would National Review--which endorses far worse abuses when perpetrated on Muslims convicted of nothing--take up the cause of an accused child smuggler and possible child trafficker, and suddenly find such grave concern over detainee conditions?...Because, as a Christian, Allen is deemed by National Review to deserve basic human rights, unlike the Muslim detainees whose (far worse) abuse they have long supported...

The very same people who have been demanding for years that Muslims be imprisoned for life, tortured and killed with no trials or charges of any kind suddenly become extremely sensitive to the nuances of due process and humane detention conditions. They start sounding like Amnesty International civil liberties extremists--the minute it's a Christian, rather than a Muslim, who is subjected to such treatment.

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