The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Wednesday, March 08, 2000

Christian conversion in Buddhist Sri Lanka

Author: Kamalika Pieris
Publication: Island Newspaper
Date: March 8, 2000

The Rev. Sydney Knight has suggested that relations between the Buddhists and Christians is now very amicable and everything is fine between them. This could be contested. Let us look at one very important inter face between the two religions ? Christian conversion of Buddhists.

Patrick Johnstone stated that Sri Lanka is the only non-Muslim Asian country where the Church has steadily declined. It had dropped from 10% in the early 20th century to 7.4%. This drop was probably enhanced by the departure of the Burghers in the 1960s. There were 69.3% Buddhists, 15.4% Hindus, 7.6% Muslim and 7.4% Christians. Of this 7.4% Christians, 6.3% were Roman Catholic and just 0.7% were Protestant. Of the Protestant groups, the largest is the Church of Ceylon, followed by the Methodist church. ("operation World" 4 ed. 1986 p 386-387)

Christian conversion is not something new. The Christians have never stopped trying to convert. The departure of the British in 1948 did not stop them. The Kurunegala Diocese of the Church of Ceylon was founded in 1950 as a missionary diocese. It was carved out of the Diocese of Colombo to enable mission and evangelism. It established parishes in the Tea estates and areas of the Mahaweli Scheme. (Daily News. 5.2.2000 p 5, 6.2.2000 p 6)

Similarly the Catholic church also never gave up on conversion. This church has separate departments for the subject of conversion. Such as the ?Sacred Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples". Evangelisation means ?to convert?. There is also the Catholic objective of ?Consecration Mundi" or the conversion of the whole world. (Gunaseela Vitanage. Island. 9.6.99 p 15, 17.6.99 p 6, 14.7.99 p 18)

The Ecumenical Council of Vatican II (1962-1965) set the Catholic Church on a revised path towards conversion. There were regional synods. The Synod for the Bishops of Asia was held in Rome in 1998. The term ?Asia? included in this case, Middle East, Gulf States, South and Central Asia, South east Asia, Asian Siberia and the Far East. It was argued that Christianity was now a part of Asian culture. It was now Asian in outlook and sufficiently indigenised to become genuinely Asian. The policy drawn up by this Asian Synod was proclaimed by the Pope in November 1999 in New Delhi, India. It contained a specific call to the Catholics to convert Asians to Christianity. It stated that Europe went Christian in the first millennium. America and Africa went Christian in the second millennium. Now it was the turn of Asia. One newspaper summarised this as "Convert Asia next.. The Catholic Church also noted, inter alia, that Asia was a paradise for foreign investment. China was fast becoming a world super power with India trailing behind.

(Daily News. 9.11.99 p 10, Hindustan Times. 7.11.99 p5. Fr. Leopold Ratnasekera. Island. 22.3.98 p 12)

The Christians flatly state that conversion is a fundamental right. It is also a special right for them since conversion is ordered in the Bible. The Bible commanded a christian to go out and spread the ?good word? about Jesus Christ. This could be contested. The Holy Bible is not an internationally accepted document, binding on everybody in the world. It is highly regarded by the Christians and ignored by everybody else. Its contents have been criticised. India, it appears actually recognises the right to propagate ones faith, and has even recognised the special right of Christians to try and convert. But in the 1977 Bihar case the Supreme Court made a distinction. The constitutional right to propagate one?s faith did not include the right to convert another to it. There is legislation which prohibits conversion by force, fraud or allurement. Allurement implied a grant of any benefit, whether pecuniary or otherwise. This definition was so sweeping that anything from education and healthcare to food relief could be construed as ?inducement?. (Island. 8.11.99 p 8) In Orissa, the state government declared that persons who wanted to convert had to inform the district magistrate, who would have the matter examined by the police. The Christians protested. (Island. 2.2.2000 p 6) The Buddhists in Sri Lanka were also getting ready to seek legislation against unethical conversion. (Christianity Today 16.11.98 p 63) Harim Peries has stated that opposition to Christian conversion is a violation of the United Nations Human Rights declaration. (Daily News. 16.1.1999 p 8) Let us examine this assertion. Here are the relevant clauses.

(A) Article 18 of the International Covenant; on Civil and Political Rights (1976) states that:

1. "Everyone shall have the right; to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of his choice....

2. "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice."

B. Article 19 of the same Covenant states that:

1. "Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

2. "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information of all kinds...."

3. Freedom to manifest one?s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, morals and fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

C. Article 5 of the Declaration on the Elimination of all forms of Intolerance and Discrimination based on Religion (1981) states that:

"Every child shall enjoy the right to have access to education in the matter of religion or belief in accordance with wishes of his parents. And shall not be compelled to receive teaching on religion or belief against the wishes of his parents. The best interests of the child being the guiding principle. The parents have the right to organise life within the family in accordance with their religion.

A full reading of the United Nations "International Bill of Rights" clearly indicates that the clauses contained in item A above support the right of an individual to have a religion. Adopt a religion refers to a peson who has no religion to begin with. It is not about conversion. Conversion comes into the next section, item B does not support un-ethical conversion. It refers adversely to interference in ones beliefs. And it also recognises that the exercise of the unlimited right to impart information calls for controls. It carries with it ?special rights and responsibilities?. However, the UN refrains from spelling these out as regards religion. (Section 3 of Article 19) Section C is usually ignored when it comes to conversion. It is important. Because it expressly protects the child from indoctrination from outside the home. It supports the adoption of the parents religion until the child is of age. Christian conversion cannot find support in the UN human rights regulations. The question of ?proselytisation? has come up when these loosely and ill defined rights are discussed. The Buddhists should use the UN Bill of Rights when examining conversion away from Buddhism.

Christianity has an image problem in Asia. It is seen as foreign and alien. Its ugly history is never forgotten. In India, the Bajran Dal wanted the Pope to declare that all religions were equal, to announce that the Catholic Church would stay away from all conversions. They wanted an apology from the Pope for ?atrocities committed by the Church in India.? The Archbishop of Delhi rejected all this. (Daily News 16.10.99 p 10, 20.10.99 p 12). There was a fairly successful attempt in Sri Lanka to indigenise church rituals - using slokas, Kandyan drumming, gokkola decorations. Recently at St. Sebastians Church, Kandana there was a thorana ?done in Buddhist style?. (Sunday Leader 23.1.2000 p 3) Elsewhere it has been suggested that an attempt to metamorphose Christianity into a quasi Buddhist appearance by using orange robes and Buddhist ?ideas?. This, it is suggested is intended to blur the distinction between Chritianity and Buddhism, so that a person could be persuaded to move from one to the other without much trauma. There is now an attempt to present Christ as an Asian, on the ground that he was born in West Asia. The Pope stated in India that Jesus Christ, took flesh as an Asian. This is to make Christianity acceptable to the Asians. The emphasis on inter-religious dialogue is also a part of this transition. ?Dialogue is fast becoming the common mode of action for the Asian church. It was useful for transmitting the message. (Island. 22.3.98 p 22) In keeping with this, the Pope, in India spoke about the need for religious tolerance. About the Asian religions, pluralism, and Asian tolerance of other religions. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad was not impressed. It examined the Pope?s declaration closely. They found it contradictory. They pointed out that the Catholic Church did not recognise other religions or salvation outside Christianity. With this exclusivist approach how can the Pope talk about religious tolerance and pluralism? (Island. 5.ll.99 p 8) Lastly, one of the issues facing Christianity in the 21st century is its visual image. The statues of Jesus and Mary available in Europe are based on the statues designed between the 12th and 16 centuries. A modern image more relevant to contemporary Europe has been sought. In Sri Lanka there was some attempt to relate the images to the local scene, by using a drape which looked like the saree.

The main strategy in Christian conversion is to ?plant? a church in non-Christian areas. The target areas identified for Sri Lanka are the Villages, the colonisation schemes, the urban slums and the estate Tamils. Church authorities have pointed out that there are 25,483 villages in Sri Lanka and the number is increasing. There are about 480 evangelical groups meeting weekly all over the island. Only about 50 of these are in rural settings ?our aim must be to plant a church in each village?. Urban churches must choose a village and send in a worker to settle down in the village. Every village church must plant a new church in the adjacent village.

The larger urban churches were starting daughter churches in "unreached areas?? by which is meant a Buddhist area. ( "Operation World. p 388. Ajit Fernando. ?Christianity Today? 16.11.1998 p 62) Ajit Fernando is national director of Youth for Christ Programme. He was trained at Fuller Theological Seminary, USA and is a lay preacher in the Methodist Church of Sri Lanka.

The Buddhists have noted Christian conversion with concern and considerable anger. The Annual report of the YMBA, 1989-90 stated that the subtle proselytising campaign was still going on. Methods used were insidious. They involved giving money and other inducements to inveigle ?innocent and poverty stricken Buddhists into changing their religion. Funds were coming in from foreign lands to promote this anti-Buddhist activity. (p 49) Ajit Fernando stated that conversion had met with considerable opposition. Organisations had been set up in Sri Lanka to monitor Christian activities. About 21 churches had been burnt. Christian workers had been assaulted and chased away. Some converts had returned to Buddhism. (Christianity Today. 16.11.98 p 64). The various Buddhist organisations were slowly waking up to the need to be watchful. Seven Buddhist organisations opposed the Church of Ceylon Bill in 1998 on the grounds that it would enable the Church of Ceylon to spread in the ?Buddhist areas? and plant churches in the 25,000 villages in Sri Lanka. This could add to the unethical conversion of the poor into Christianity by evangelical Christian sects which were doing so freely. (Sunday Times. 10.5.98 p 11)

Gunaseela Vitanage drew attention to some of the decisions of Vatican II. The Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity issued by Vatican II directed the Catholic laity to infiltrate into all public and private institutions, such as government departments, the police and armed forces, also the mass media, with the intention of spreading the gospel and aiding conversion. Vitanage argues that this is a gross violation of the sovereignity of a country.

This is a general decree. It is unlikely that such simple Catholic Action could be carried out in 21 century Sri Lanka or indeed anywhere. (Island. 17.6.99 p 6)

Seneka Weeraratne wrote in, to strongly condemn the increasing infiltration of western Christian missionaries, through NGos supposedly working towards lifting economic standards of the poor, while in fact striving at every turn to convert Asian Buddhists to Christianity through offers of material inducements. (Island 26.12,99 p 18)

The Christian missionaries categorically deny that they are ?proselytising? or engaging in ?unethical conversion?. They say that they re-instructed by the Bible to try and convert. They are also instructed by the Bible to practice Christian charity. They do not combine the two. They do not link conversion to the charitable help they give. People convert by ?divine grace?. These ideas have been contested. Critics state that the Christian church alone did not have a monopoly over absolute truth and love. (Island. 17.7.99 p 9) Another said that he had never seen anyone convert through ?divine grace?.(?)

An important aspect of contemporary Christian conversion in Sri Lanka is the introduction of aggressive conversion by a series of predominantly American sects. This has caused concern in the established church too. Fr. Aloysius Peries stated that after the open economy started in the 1980s, there had been an ?easy intrusion of fundamentalist Christian groups with funding from the west, preaching a new version of the colonial Christ. ("Buddhism and Christianity." edited by Ulrich Everding. Goethe Institute, Colombo 1995. p 203)

These churches are popularly known as ?born again? sects.

There are also some 73 development NGOs, converting away in Sri Lanka. These churches first started arriving in the 1960s. They are funded and instructed by America and their main purpose is to convert. That is why they are known as ?evangelistic churches?. Lanka Perera says that they are ?spreading like wildfire? in country. (Sunday Leader. 21.2.99 p 30) The first to convert are the Christians themselves, Catholics and Protestants. This is felt to be accidental, I do not think so. For a missionary church to take root here, it is essential that the cooperation of the existing Christian community be obtained. In an attempt to stop young people from running to these more exciting and jollier sects, the established church is also now allowing a limited amount of guitar playing, yelling, jumping and clapping inside their churches. The conversion of young Christians to these new sects is actually a simple transfer of their loyalty from Rome to Washington. The belief in the Christian god remains the same. Some of these religious groups are trying to develop submissive cult groups, who either faint, or hand over their jewellery to the ?pastor? (see Lanka Perera) This will eventually affect the image of Christianity. I have observed some of these religious services. They are manipulative and encourage the development of hysteria. This is most inadvisable, both for the religion and for Sri Lanka.

S.R.N Hoole is another concerned Christian who has been critical of these sects. He has provided a lively description of the craft and manipulation employed by these sects. The target was Sri Lankan youth and carrot is America. The young people are attracted by America and other perks offered. Hoole therefore remarks that these religious sects were known as ?CIA cells". The leaders are trained and funded by America and sent here. They are given sales folders which gave precise instructions on how to conduct the meetings so as to catch new converts. They gave instructions on when to start the music, the singing, the clapping, and the praying. It is all programmed. (S.R.N Hoole. ?The exile returned. p 156-158) These religious leaders are paid well. So the leaders of these ?born again? sects, leave one sect and join another, because the foreign sponsors are ?waiting to grab them as their representatives in Sri Lanka.? (Christianity Today. p 64) Since America is funding, there is plenty of money available. People, are paid for bringing recruits. Some keep getting converted over and over again. These sects also have foreigners working in them in Sri Lanka. As a result the weddings of these converts are ?full of foreigners?. It could be argued that these new sects controlled by America are political in intent and not religious at all. There are sufficient established churches for routine evangelising.

The older churches are also now filled with preachers who have trained in the American seminaries. It is well known that after the end of the Cold War, America had targeted Asia as its next sphere of influence.

The Christian conversion handled by these sects is well planned. It would appear that the Church first surveyed the territory and then drew up a battle plan. Any edition of ?operation World? would confirm this. The strategy of the missionaries in Sri Lanka fall into two broad categories. Firstly the indoctrination of young persons and children, by presenting Christianity very subtly and in an attractive light. Secondly, by approaching adults when they were at their most vulnerable. Such as in sickness, physical handicap bereavement or financial difficulties.

It is this which infuriates the Buddhists. Otherwise they could not care less whether Buddhists remained Buddhists or not. The late Dr. C. de S. Wijesundera of Kandy has publicly criticised Christian conversion. He tried to alert us to the dangers. He pointed out that these religious sects were exploiting certain economic weaknesses, such as poverty. Their very methods of conversion courted hostility and suspicion. These sects were misusing freedom of speech, tax concessions, and the land granted by the government. They were engaged, he said in a "despicable, treacherous, indecent and massive assault on Buddhism". (references provided are dated: Island. 12.8.93 and Daily News. 5.10.91)

One strategy was to start pre-schools. Children were taught Christian hymns and elements of Christianity. This is hardly surprising. When we went to Christian schools in the pre independent period, we had to attend Christian prayers. A second method was to start English classes. The course work given in the English class had Christian content. Dr. C. de S. Wijesundera said that there were such schools in Mylapitiya and Bokkala in Kandy district. He branded them as active proselytising centres. In the 1990s such a venture had been started in Pannipitiya. The Buddhist priest of the area had intervened and the venture collapsed.

These American funded religious sects have also started hospitals. Dr. Wijesundera named three well known hospitals of this nature in Kandy and another one in Bokkawala. These hospitals were registered as charities but charged fees from patients. Prayer meetings were held in them. They also trained nurses. Permanent appointments were offered to nurses if they converted. Thereafter they were expected to convert patients. These are actually new variants of the old, colinial methods. What is new is the aggressive move into remote villages, where the urban Buddhists don?t find it easy to come in and chase them away, Buddhist Priests in these villages are appealing for help.

I have seen a letter sent by one such Buddhist priest. He named the agency, a well known religious group. They had set up an organisation, where the workers were paid. A childrens group was also set up. Adults were helped in various ways such as money, houses, jobs and other forms of financial support. These recruits were encouraged thereafter to become antagonistic to Buddhism. They became ?anti-temple?. Dayakayas were specially selected and weaned away from the Buddhist temple. Attendance at the Daham Pasala dropped. A hall put up for an agricultural project, looked just like a church. Lastly, this group had organised a Wesak kudu contest in front of the temple! Priest was helpless and appealed for help from the towns. It would therefore be apparent that the main reason Buddhists convert to Christianity is not because of the missionaries, but because of the lethargy, indifference and complacency of the Buddhists themselves.


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