Christian charity Samaritan's Purse fears anything relating to Jesus may offend Muslims So its decision to ban Jesus, God and anything else connected with its own faith has been greeted with little short of puzzlement.
Operation Christmas Child, run by the charity Samaritan's Purse, sends festive packages to deprived youngsters in countries ravaged by war and famine. Donors are asked to pack shoeboxes with a cuddly toy, a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap and flannel, notepads, colouring books and crayons - but nothing to do with Christmas.
Stories from the Bible, images of Jesus and any other Christian literature are expressely forbidden - in case Muslims are offended.
Yesterday the charity's policy of censoring its own faith was described as political correctness gone mad.
Last Christmas, Britons filled 1.13million shoeboxes for Samaritan's Purse to send to children abroad. But Barbara Hill, who works at the worldwide charity's UK headquarters in Buckhurst Hill, Essex, said: "Anything we find in the boxes which has a religious nature will be removed. "If a box was opened by a Muslim child in a Muslim country they may be offended so we try to avoid religious images."
The charity has also banned war-related items such as Action Man-type figures, as well as chocolate and cake.
Yesterday the policy was condemned as "bizarre". John Midgley, cofounder of the Campaign Against Political Correctness, said: "It seems extraordinary that a Christian charity is so concerned about political correctness that it is banning itself from its own core values.
"We have members from all faiths who would be appalled at this patronising sort of attitude." Mike Slade, the Rural Dean of Locking, Somerset, added: "Personally I think it is a great shame that we can't share the gift of Christmas which comes from the Christian faith with children all over the world.
"I think a number of Muslim people would respect Christians sharing their faith as they would accept respect from us. Political correctness is increasingly creeping into many spheres of life. We are very sad to hear about this." A Church of England spokesman said: "We are very clear that in Britain, Muslims are not offended by Christians celebrating Christmas." But he added: "In other parts of the world, in Muslim countries, if Muslims have strong values that would regard this as a hostile act, it is different.
"Ideally, a child would receive a present with a Madonna and Child card, but if that is not possible, it is more important than the aid gets through than the Christian message." The appeal sends shoe boxes from Britain to children in countries including Azerbaijan, Armenia, Romania, Serbia, Sudan and Mozambique.
Although no Christian literature is included in the boxes, the charity does separately distribute Christmas stories from the Bible and encourages Bible study in areas where it gives toys out.
A spokesman for Samaritan's Purse, which was introduced to Britain by evangelist Billy Graham and is run internationally by his son Franklin, said: "Christianity motivates many of our supporters to help children in need. We are a Christian charity and that's about helping people.
"But it's our policy not to put religious, political or military items in boxes which go to areas of different cultures. "All shoeboxes are checked in the UK warehouses in case someone has ignored the instruction and put such an item into a shoebox and, if found, any such item is removed."
Devoutly Christian MP Ann Widdecombe said: "Either this is being done in the name of Christ or it isn't. This is Christmas, a Christian festival. If it's being done for Christmas, there is no reason on earth why they should not have Christian symbols."
Last year, Lambeth Council in South London renamed its Christmas street decorations 'Winter Lights' to avoid offending non-Christians, while several years ago, Birmingham City Council notoriously rebranded the Christmas holidays 'Winterval'.