PROTESTING parents are calling on a school to abandon its support for a charity’s shoebox appeal which they fear is used to convert impoverished children to Christianity.

James Rock is a parent of two children, aged four and six, enrolled at Colchester High School.

He and his partner initially only cast a sparing glance towards the pamphlet handed out by the school regarding the Operation Christmas Child appeal.

The initiative is held annually by charity Samaritan’s Purse, which has attracted controversy for its central mission of converting impoverished children to its cause.

Recipients of a shoebox filled with gifts also receive religious literature and are encouraged to sign up to The Greatest Journey – a 12-lesson “discipleship” programme.

Mr Rock said: “As busy parents we took a quick look at the pamphlet, assumed it to be fine.

"We thought from the name it was associated with Samaritans.

“Only a little while later the same week one of the mums popped up on the school WhatsApp group expressing her frustration at what she had found.

“It turns out Samaritan’s Purse is a Christian evangelical organisation which exploits the familiar shoebox appeal to help push their cause.

“They package up persuasive paraphernalia along with shoe boxes, which are delivered to young children in struggling parts of the world.

“Word has spread and parents are refusing to donate shoeboxes.”

Since 1990, more than 157 million children in more than 160 countries have received shoeboxes from Samaritan’s Purse.

But the programme has attracted controversy and in 2003 the Co-op, which had acted as a drop-off point, withdrew its support.

With an income of more than £15.9 million it is one of the richest religious charities in the UK.

Critics allege it specifically targets Muslim children in poor countries in a bid to convert them.

Its CEO, Reverend William Franklin Graham III, is an outspoken critic of homosexuality and used his Facebook page to call for an end to all immigration of Muslims to the United States.

A school spokesman said more than 100 boxes filled with gifts had already been donated by parents.

She said: “As well as the shoebox appeal, we will be donating to the Women’s Refuge and foodbank.

“Colchester High School is committed to encouraging our pupils to think about others and works with a wide range of charitable organisations throughout the year.

“The shoebox appeal is not about supporting a specific religious denomination, but about providing gift and essential items for children.

“There are many schools and businesses in Colchester and nationally who support this appeal.

"As a school, we are also committed to teaching our pupils about diversity, mutual respect and tolerance of others and are proud of our PSHE curriculum that teaches pupils about those with different faiths and beliefs.”

Richy Thompson, director of public affairs at charity Humanists UK, urged parents to seek out another cause.

He said: “This scheme has a questionable history of luring charitable people to donate to a cause that preys on vulnerable children who have faced war, poverty and other terrible tragedies and gifts them with shiny toys alongside leaflets that tell them they must follow the teachings of the Bible.

"We urge schools and other individuals to avoid this U.S. evangelical charity and instead donate to a reputable and transparent charity which only has the intention of spreading joy and goodwill at Christmas.”

What does the charity say? 

A spokesman for Samaritan’s Purse insisted the appeal allows needy children to receive gifts with “no strings attached.”

He added the objective of Operation Christmas Child is to demonstrate God’s love to vulnerable and disadvantaged children.

“We work with thousands of local churches and community groups around the world to identify the neediest and most under-privileged children,” he said.

“In many cases, the shoebox is the first gift a child has ever received.

“Through this network in over 100 countries we deliver these gifts to children at safe, well-organised events led by local people, within culturally appropriate settings.

“Thankfully these links also allow us to share shoebox gifts in hard-to-reach places such as refugee camps in the Middle East.”

He added: “No matter where we go, we don’t hide the fact that we are Christians and we offer the chance to learn more about the Christian Faith, but we always serve these children without any strings attached.

“Shoebox gifts are given to children regardless of religious affiliation and only with their parent or guardian’s permission.

“We hope that our acts of compassion and the quality of our work are an example of our faith.”