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.

Sunday, January 13, 2002

Proselytism and International Law

Robert Traer

There is considerable opposition to proselytism around the world. Those who support greater restrictions on the activities of missionaries (particularly foreign missionaries) object to proselytizing for several reasons. First, proselytizing attacks other religious beliefs and practices in order to assert that its own way is the only way to salvation. Second, proselytizing is often supported by financial resources and marketing techniques that make local religious activity seem second-rate and shabby. And third, proselytizing is frequently successful.

It must be admitted that a double standard often is present in the argument about proselytism. Missionary activity is limited within certain areas of India on the grounds that indigenous traditions need to be protected, yet groups teaching Hindu meditation demand on the basis of international law the right to proselytize in the countries of Eastern Europe. Muslims in Western Europe expect that their right to seek converts will be protected there, but many governments controlled by Muslims deny that right to other religious communities in their jurisdiction.

Orthodox Churches have long been opposed to proselytism and raised this issue during negotiations for admission into the World Council of Churches. In 1956 the Central Committee of the WCC met in Hungary and discussed a report on "proselytism and religious liberty." A final version of this report was approved in 1961 at the third assembly of the WCC. It defined proselytism as a corruption of Christian witness: "Witness is corrupted when cajolery, bribery, undue pressure or intimidation is used—subtly or openly—to bring about seeming conversion." That same year several Orthodox Churches joined the World Council of Churches.

Four years later the Roman Catholic hierarchy came to a similar conclusion in the Declaration on Religious Freedom adopted by the Second Vatican Council. A footnote to The Documents of Vatican II makes clear the new Catholic position: "Proselytism is a corruption of the Christian witness by appeal to hidden forms of coercion or by a style of propaganda unworthy of the Gospel. It is not the use but the abuse of the right to religious freedom." This understanding is now reflected in Barrett's World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Study of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, which defines proselytism as "a manner of behaving contrary to the spirit of the gospel" and making "use of dishonest methods to attract" others "by exploiting their ignorance or poverty."

International law, however, does not distinguish between religious witness and proselytism. It simply affirms that everyone has the right to freedom of religion or belief and the freedom, individually or in community with others, to manifest this religion or belief "in worship, observance, practice and teaching." The freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may only be limited by laws that are "necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." International law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the state and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another. Thus international law does not reflect the sensitivity expressed by the World Council of Churches and Vatican II in their Christian understanding of religious freedom.

It is no surprise that legal attempts in Central and Eastern Europe to limit proselytizing have been heavy handed. New legislation strongly supported by the Moscow Patriarchate amends the 1990 Russian Law on Freedom of Conscience and Freedom of Religion by restricting the freedom of foreigners in Russian to express their religious faith, a distinction that runs counter to the nature of religious freedom as a fundamental human right. Moreover, the 1997 legislation imposes registration and organizational requirements on foreign religious groups that may be used to discriminate against them.

Anger at proselytising fuels nationalistic resistance to religious freedom. For many in Central and Eastern Europe, religion is inextricably related to culture and national heritage. This is very different than the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting freedom of religion or belief under international law. Most Orthodox churches identify strongly with a particular ethnic and cultural history that is represented concretely by a nation. Thus an Orthodox church expects the state that governs "its" nation to represent and protect the interests of the church.


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