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.

Thursday, May 22, 2003

Proselytization In India: An Indian Christian's Perspective

by C. Alex Alexander

Published on Thursday, May 22, 2003

Since colonial times to the present, the impetus for Christian proselytizing work in India has largely emanated from Western Christian Church groups and missions. The latter's continuing obsession for promoting religious conversions under the aegis of India's Constitutional guarantee of religious freedom has triggered a raging debate among religious and political leaders of that country. Many Hindus of the Indian Diaspora have also been drawn into it.

Over seventy years ago, Mahatma Gandhi stated that: “proselytizing under the cloak of humanitarian work is unhealthy, to say the least. It is most resented by people here". The resentment that Gandhi alluded to has increased in India over the years, mostly due to the persistence of religious conversions engineered by Christian evangelists who derive their financial support from foreign sources. Fundamentalist Muslims too have entered the fray in recent years with substantive financial contributions from Muslim countries interested in furthering the spread of Islam in India. Some Hindu groups have resorted to reverse conversions. All these trends are destructive to India's time-tested culture of religious tolerance.

The muteness of liberal Indian Christians, both in India and overseas, is indeed surprising. The aim of this essay is to rectify that omission at least in part. I hope that liberal Indians of all faiths will debate this issue with their fundamentalist counterparts in a similar vein to prevent the spread of inter-religious conflicts in that subcontinent. At the end of this essay, I shall present for your consideration a plan for pre-empting the religious militancy embedded in the fundamentalist varieties of both Christianity and Islam.

Though I have been living in the United States (US) for over forty years, I have maintained my moorings in the Indian culture through periodic visits to that country and close interactions with my Indian friends here regardless of their religious affiliations. The gift that I cherish most from my Indian origin and parental influence is one of unbridled religious tolerance. That Indic tradition of allowing people of diverse faiths to seek their own spiritual centering is now under attack in India at the hands of fundamentalists of all religions.

The divisive and supercilious natures of their arguments have given me the impetus to write this article. I am not a religious scholar. But, I do value and cherish the teachings of Jesus as conveyed to me through my early religious influences in my childhood. Therefore, I am able to empathize with the angst of an adherent of any religion when he or she is confronted by the caricature of one's personal faith as portrayed by a fundamentalist of another religion. Like all my non-Christian friends, I too am annoyed when a well-meaning Christian fundamentalist knocks on my door and asks me whether I am “born-again” and whether I would like to be saved! I can internalize the frustration of a non-Christian subjected to such an intrusive interrogation.

I am well aware that fundamentalist Christians may condemn my views expressed in this article. If they do, I am certain that I will be able to weather their damnation because of my roots in an ancient Christian tradition whose commitment to the tenets of Jesus is no less than theirs. My faith will allow me to forgive their condemnation. I hope that their beliefs will likewise permit them to forgive my interpretations of Jesus' teachings if they find them to be at variance with theirs.

My religious tradition has always placed more emphasis on the spiritual dimension of Jesus' teachings than in the establishment of Bible's historicity. My reading of the history of early Christianity leads me to believe that the Western churches' obsession for converting others to Christianity is based more on their historical tradition of using proselytization as an instrument of statecraft for the extension of their political and mercantile influences, than in furthering the spiritual welfare of their flocks.

EARLY CHRISTIANITY

The ancient traditions of Christian churches evolved from their native eastern Semitic belief systems. But, most of the currently existing dogmas of Christianity as advanced by the western churches were molded by the impact of Greco-Roman traditions. To this day, the ancient (often referred to as oriental orthodox) churches of Syria, India (in Kerala), Ethiopia, Egypt, and Armenia have successfully shielded themselves from the dogmas of western churches. But, that was not easy in India after the arrival of the European colonizers there.

In 1498 CE, the Portuguese tried and failed in a hostile takeover of the ancient Indian Orthodox Church through intimidation[2]. Again, starting from 1836 CE, the Indian Orthodox Church was subjected to the machinations of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) of the United Kingdom with the connivance of the British Residents who were assigned to the Kingdom of Travencore to serve as Agents of the British Crown[2a]. Such meddling in the internal affairs of the ancient church resulted in the formation of a proselytizing group called the CMS; which is now part of the Church of South India (CSI). Subsequently in 1889 CE; another split in the original Indian Orthodox Church occurred to create a “reformed” group, with an explicit recognition that evangelism is essential for the growth of Christianity. That reformed orthodox group is known as the Mar Thoma Church. Interestingly, that Church's conversion activities have remained modest and are mostly undertaken outside of Kerala.

The original Indian Orthodox Church too has been buffeted over the centuries by internal feuds. But, they have all been unrelated to theological issues. In 1912 CE, this ancient and original orthodox church splintered to form two separate churches, one known as the Malankara Indian Orthodox Church totally autocephalous with its own spiritual head in Kottayam, Kerala and another called the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church subject to Patriarchal oversight from the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch in Damascus, Syria[2c]. That division appears to have been based more on issues of autonomy and nationalism than on canonical differences. The Indian Supreme Court was recently drawn into yet another court fight between these two groups to settle issues concerning property rights of their respective churches. The theological beliefs of the original Indian orthodox churches along with their Egyptian, Armenian, Syrian and Ethiopian counterparts as well as the Greek and Russian orthodox churches (known as the Eastern Orthodox) seem to have survived in tact over a span of over 1600 years. They did not develop the same degree of fixation about proselytization as their Western counterparts did.

Unlike the western churches, the oriental orthodox churches did not raise armies or promote crusades as the Bishop of Rome (Pope's title in early Christianity) did in order to spread Christianity. The oriental orthodox churches seek God realization through the mental disciplines of contemplation and prayer in lieu of dependence on Christian eschatology. From the earliest of times, they exercised moderation in the practice of Jesus' commandment to spread the “good news or evangelion”. They fulfill their obligation to “propagate” their faiths through natural processes such as births, marriages and the inclusion of those who seek conversion brought about by real changes in their religious convictions. That has remained so for nearly two millennia.

Even in today's post-Communist Russia with its newly established religious freedom, the Russian Orthodox Church does not look upon kindly at proselytization undertaken by any religious sect. In Greece, its Constitution also prohibits proselytization. Whenever it is flouted by a religious sect, the Greek Orthodox Church seeks governmental intervention to suppress it[3]. I am not holding up either Greece or Russia as a model of democracy. Greece is a theocratic state since Greek Orthodox Christianity is its state religion. It restricts the office of its Presidency to citizens of that faith. But, I am merely citing Greece and Russia as examples of two western nations that do not tolerate proselytization even when they are undertaken by Christian denominations.

The fundamentalist Christians both in India and abroad have been too quick to condemn as draconian the recent anti-conversion legislations enacted by a few Indian states. Proselytization was not a distinctive hallmark of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches of early Christianity. Jesus himself appears to have condemned proselytization when he said, “woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more than the child of hell than yourselves"[4].

I often think of those verses whenever I hear of mass conversions of Dalits and tribals in India. They often seem to become outcasts twice! It is unfortunate that caste prejudice still persists not only among many Hindus but also among many Christians and Muslims as well. Frequently, it comes out of the closet when matrimonial alliances are considered, even when the two families involved in such discussions are of the same faith. Conversion to Christianity does not seem to eradicate caste prejudice in India any more than it eliminates racial discrimination in the US. Despite Jesus' call for brotherly love, isn't Sunday the most segregated day in America? If not, how does one explain the need for English-speaking African-Americans and Hispanics of Christian faith to maintain separate places of worship? Many fundamentalist Christian groups in the US still maintain racial separation and frown upon inter-racial dating.

WESTERN CHRISTIANITY

Christian fundamentalists believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation (New Testament) were revealed by the resurrected Jesus to his disciple John when the latter was on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. The religious broadcast media in the United States is a good source for seeing and hearing the vehemence with which the Christian fundamentalists assert that every word in the Bible is true and infallible. A contemporary example of such misguided beliefs is discernible in their views about the military conflicts in Iraq and Palestine. They claim that the establishment of Israel and the war in Iraq are both vindications of the prophecies in the Book of Revelation. During recent months, five verses from that book are frequently cited by biblical literalists as examples of the Bible's infallibility. Those verses predict the second coming of Jesus after “the sixth angel poured out his vial upon the great river of Euphrates and the water thereof dried up (so) that the way of the kings of the east might be prepared"[4a] .

The fact that the verses refer to the “kings of the east” crossing the Euphrates is explained away by fundamentalists as mere allegorical reference to Bush, Blair and Aznar. A few of their troop formations did in fact cross the river from the east! Some even point to the uncanny accuracy of the reference to “kings” because of the behavior of Bush, Blair and Aznar. The latter three leaders of democracies did disregard the wishes of their “subjects” when they decided to wage war! So far, so good! But, how does one interpret without concern a subsequent prophecy in the same book which predicts one thousand years of world misery after the way for the kings are prepared and the river gets dried up?[5] The biblical literalists have an answer for that too. It is just another allegorical measurement of God's time. It may mean a thousand hours, days, weeks or months!

Bumiller, reporting on President Bush's stance on Iraq stated that he “sees the world as a biblical struggle of good versus evil"[6]. The fundamentalists of all religions seem to believe in the infallibility of their prophets and strive for a historic fulfillment of their prophecies regardless of whether they inflict untold miseries on themselves or their unwitting neighbors. The late Robert K. Merton, one of America's foremost sociologists eloquently stated that: “a self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the original false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error, for the prophet will cite the actual course of events as evidence that he was right from the very beginning"[7].

Christian fundamentalists holding on to their blind beliefs in the infallibility of every word in the Bible are not affected by facts such as: (i)there are many versions of the Bible, (ii)Jesus spoke Aramaic and not Latin, Greek or English in which most western Bibles are written, (iii)many oriental orthodox denominations have their own Bibles which are derived from the ancient Aramaic or Syriac translations of the Greek texts, (iv)the Book of Revelation was absent from many early Greek texts of the New Testament, (v)St.Paul's writings on Christianity are not universally accepted by all Christians, (vi)the Gospels were selectively gathered, (vii)many early versions of the new and old testaments were hand copied with likely human errors of both omissions and commissions, (viii)many original works of Jesus' associates (Thomas in particular) were discarded by some Christian sects during the first five or six centuries following the death of Jesus, (xi)many such discarded books are still used by other Christian sects, and (x)the first King James version of the English Bible was printed only in 1611 and has been revised seven times so far[8].

Christianity, as practiced by the West, has become insensitive to the emotional violence inflicted on the poorest of the poor when inducements such as free food, medical care, money, and employment are used as baits to engineer religious conversions. It is even worse when intimidations are used to facilitate conversions, as some Islamic nations do. While Christianity and Islam, as practiced by a large majority of their followers, do subscribe to peace, tolerance and non-violence, the daily occurrence of death and destruction based on religious differences in our present-day world highlight the distortions that are perpetrated by militant adherents of these religions. In Saudi Arabia, non-Islamic visitors and guest workers cannot even bring their books of worship or congregate in public places to conduct community worship services. Like their Christian counterparts, Islamic fundamentalists also want to actualize the prophecies in the Koran. Such obsessions to make religious texts serve as passports to heaven are mercifully absent in the non-Abrahamic faiths.

MY CHRISTIAN FAITH

Being a liberal Christian and raised in a non-fundamentalist tradition, I am able to perceive little or no contradiction between the tenets of Jesus and many of the seminal concepts of Hinduism and Buddhism. The priceless affirmation in the Hindu scripture which says “eko sat vipra bahudi vedanti” (one truth, but discerned differently by the wise) is somewhat similar to one of Jesus' sayings, “in my Father's house, there are many mansions, if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare one for you"[4b]. Another of Jesus' sayings which affirms that: “I and my Father are one”[4c] is similar to the Hindu Mahavakya, “Aham Brahmasmi” (I am Brahman). The “born again” attribute necessary for a Christian's salvation as required by Jesus is no different from the concept of “dwija” or twice-born in Brahman (often misconstrued as Brahmin)[4d].

There are also several references in the New Testament indicating that Jesus and his disciples believed in both karma and reincarnation[4e]. It appears that the belief in reincarnation has persisted over the years, as evidenced by the continuing belief of Christian fundamentalists in the second coming of Jesus. The Acts of Thomas which were excluded from the New Testament, contain concepts prevalent in the advaita of Hinduism[9]. Even the sacrificial nature of Jesus' assumption of the sins of his followers through his own crucifixion and death is similar to the willingness of adept Hindu Gurus to assume the karmic baggage of their followers. I also find that many of the parables Jesus used in his teachings are strikingly similar to Buddha's teachings imparted 500 years before Jesus was born[10].

Like the majority of human beings, I too inherited my religion through the faith of my parents. Their Christian roots in India's Kerala State are very ancient. My family lived very amicably with other religious minorities in a predominantly Hindu environment. I cannot recall even a single instance where I or any of my non-Hindu friends were subjected to any kind of religious discrimination. The Christian faith that I acquired through my parents has been so liberating that I have had no problem in accepting the plurality of worship pursued by others. I was brought up to believe that the practice of one's faith should be a personal affair and of no concern to others. Jesus himself prescribed it thus: “when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you"[4f].

One of the early explanations regarding the Holy Trinity (Father, Son and the Holy Spirit) that I heard was in the form of characterizing the Father as the eternal truth, the son as an expression of that truth in human form, and the Holy Spirit as the transformation of the latter as agape or unconditional love. Therefore, I have no difficulty in equating the state of bliss posited in Sat-Chit-Ananda with the transcendent bliss invoked through the Holy Spirit. In my mind they are conceptually well correlated: sat is the eternal truth, chit is the consciousness of that truth, and ananda is the bliss experienced through unattached love.

A CALL TO INDIAN CHRISTIANS

In my opinion, most Christians born and raised in India's diverse milieu are innately liberal and pluralistic in their outlook. Therefore, they should now raise their voices against the divisive activities of the evangelical Christians, especially those that are bankrolled by the Western churches. Failure to do so is likely to do harm both to the religious freedom of India's minorities and the territorial integrity of that nation. The peripatetic foreign missionaries certainly have no stake in preserving the territorial integrity of India. But, Indians of all religions do. Besides, separatist movements in Northeast India have been suspected of deriving support from foreign missionary groups. Given the sordid history of Western Christianity, eternal vigilance is indeed prudent.

A page from the recent history of East Timor may be appropriate for Indians to review in order to understand the negative potential of offshore proselytization! The indigenous tribes in that island were first converted to Christianity by Dutch and Portuguese missionaries. Then they were helped by the western nations to secede from Indonesia. India may run similar risks if it continues to allow foreign missionaries to have unfettered access to its tribal populations.

If India is to maintain its hard-won nationhood and regain its past level of religious tolerance, all Indians of goodwill must do everything possible now to stifle the voices of religious fundamentalists. Muslim and Christian clerics must learn to tone down their assertions of monotheistic superiority as well as refrain from denigrating religions which do not subscribe to their views of salvation. They must come to terms with the fact that the Hindu perception of God in myriad forms is just as sacred and inviolate to them as the monotheistic concept is to the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The Christian evangelists and the literal Islamists must also realize that they cannot continue to maintain their exclusive monopolies for marketing the road maps to heaven. Likewise, Hindu organizations should not allow their legitimate concerns about insensitive and duplicitous missionary groups to degenerate into generalized bashing of minorities through acts such as indulging in mass distribution of tridents or creating a climate of suspicion against all minorities. Pluralistic Indians of all religious faiths have an urgent need now to close their ranks and drown out the rhetoric of religious fanatics if they truly want to allow India to emerge as an economic and political power. Otherwise, India will remain a weak and soft State much to the glee of the Western nations.

LIBERAL CHRISTIANS

Liberal theologians of Christianity seem to have no difficulty in conceding that the ultimate truth can be sought through other equally valid religious traditions. If Christianity is to flourish and thrive anywhere in the new Millennium, it needs to heed the calls of its liberal leaders and theologians like Thomas Jefferson, John B. Cobb Jr., James Luther Adams, Paul Tillich, John Shelby Spong et al. If it merely wants to use the faith as a wedge to divide and enslave people as in the past, then it should continue to march to the drumbeats of Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Oral Roberts and Billy Graham.

In 1984, the then Episcopal Bishop of Newark (NJ), John Shelby Spong visited India and wrote the following: “what I learned about Hinduism enhanced my appreciation for this ancient religious tradition. I saw a beauty in it that was enviable, and I found many points where Christians and Hindus are seeking to deal with the same human needs in remarkably similar ways”. He admired the absence of the “spirit of missionary imperialism” in Hinduism and questioned whether or not the “Christian claims to possess infallibility or ultimate truth are not signs of a brittle pettiness that cannot endure”. His writings credited such insights to the dialogue he had with three Hindu scholars at a very old Christian seminary in Kottayam, in India's Kerala State[11].

While Christian fundamentalists take great pride in establishing the historicity of the Bible, they condemn all scholarly attempts of liberal Christians to study Jesus as a historical figure. They consider all such inquiries to be part of the “devil's” preoccupation to either misquote or deny Jesus' teachings. The fundamentalists of Christianity lack the insight to accept the limitations of the human mind to comprehend God. They are quick to condemn all plural definitions of God and ascribe such differences to the ignorance of the “heathens”.

Without any hesitation Christian fundamentalists will concede that Jesus advocated forgiveness of one's enemies and commanded that an offender be forgiven not “seven times but seventy times seven"[4g]. But, that will not deter them from claiming that their wars are always just because they wage them only to destroy the wicked and the evil! And, God will always call upon them to decide who is evil and who is wicked! The notion that wars are inconsistent to the beliefs inherent in both the Old Testament's call for the beating of swords into plowshares[4h] and Jesus' own admonition to his followers not to resist evil has never been of concern to Christian rulers[4i].

Liberal Christians do recognize that during the last 1500 years, the European nations have indeed hijacked and corrupted an eastern mystic's (Jesus) efforts to replace the then-prevailing Judaic concept of a vengeful God with one of compassion and infinite love. From the early European crusades to the Holocaust, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now Iraq, the Judeo-Christian western nations have not shied away from using violence to resolve political and ethnic conflicts despite Jesus' commandments to abjure violence and promote peace. The victorious nations always justify death and destructions as unavoidable “collaterals” which are inseparable from their Christian obligation to fight evil, promote freedom, or preserve human dignity! The last Millennium's history is replete with such callous and cynical behavior of Western nations.

From the middle of the mid 10th Century, the western nations seem to have expended great efforts in converting Jesus, a Semite into an Anglo-Saxon. They just could not tolerate letting him remain an Afro-Asiatic, which he was. Astute visitors to any large museum that houses a collection of medieval icons and church paintings can easily discern for themselves the slow conversion of the images of Jesus, Joseph and Mary from their original Afro-Asiatic appearances to those of Europeans. The Western nations not only expropriated the Middle Eastern persona of Jesus and his tenets to fit their Western traditions but they also confiscated the intellectual properties of ancient cultures without giving the latter any credit for their accomplishments.

Such expropriations of intellectual property from traditional cultures continue to occur even today. It is ironic that the Western nations who now demand universal adherence to the sanctity of patents and copyrights are the very ones who committed such plunders in the past. It is no secret that all colonial powers used Christianity as a useful weapon in their arsenal to expand their imperial domains. As Bishop Desmond Tutu often says, “When the missionaries came, they had the Bible and we had the land. They said, 'let us pray'. We closed our eyes. When we opened them we had the Bible and they had the land"[12].

INDEPENDENT INDIA AND CHRISTIANITY

Since India's independence, Hindu nationalists have been complaining about the ulterior motives of many foreign missionaries working in India. In recent years, particularly since the late 1980s, such complaints have become more vigorous, mostly as a result of the brazen calls of many western evangelists and the Pope to Christianize Asia. While visiting India in 1999, the Pope openly proclaimed his wish to "witness a great harvest of faith” there through the Christianization of the whole country. It is well outlined in the Pope's promulgation, “Ecclesia in Asia” which was released during his visit.

Predictably, a group of Hindu religious leaders were outraged. Not only did they ask the Pope to retract his proclamation; but also sought an apology from him for the notorious Goan Inquisition of 1560 CE which was carried out under the dictates of one of his predecessors. While the Pope had no hesitation at publicly praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or apologizing for the past persecution of Jews, he was not willing to throw any such sop to the Hindu religious leaders.

Only recently I became aware of the fact that since 1974, the International Congress on World Evangelization (ICWE) has been quietly developing a grand design to evangelize the rest of the non-Christian world which is known among Christian fundamentalist circles as the “10/40 window” or the Joshua Project. It targets for conversion all those living in countries within the 10th and 40th parallels, truncated longitudinally in the west by the western borders of Africa and in the east along the eastern fringes of Japan. I would like to urge interested readers of this article to visit that organization's website to fully comprehend the potential impact of such a worldwide conversion campaign[13].

The ICWE is supported by the powerful churches of the west. They have enrolled native agents from all countries within the “10/40 window” to implement the Joshua Project. For India, the ICWE has developed a plan which targets for conversion, 150 communities of Hindu, Muslim and Parsee faiths. The Kashmir region is part of that project. On the same website, there is also a revisionist narrative of the history of Indian Christianity authored by Rev. Richard Howell. It is a classic example of the distortions that take place when vested interests reconstruct historical events. For example, though Rev. Howell concedes that Christianity in India is ancient and “two millennia old”, he is silent on the historically verifiable presence of the ancient Indian Orthodox Church as well as the tolerance shown by the then Hindu rulers (Cheraman Perumals) on the southwest coast of India to a new faith in their midst. He fails to grasp that religious peace prevailed there only because of the non-proselytizing nature of the early followers of Christianity.[13]

When conversions to Christianity took place in pre-colonial India, they occurred more as a result of a true change in religious convictions than through an exchange of material benefits. There is also no mention in Rev. Howell's writings about the intimidation used by Portuguese rulers in the late 16th Century against the oriental orthodox churches in Kerala to make them submit to the Pope's authority. Through the use of the Portuguese armada in the Arabian Sea, their padres frequently harassed many orthodox priests traveling in dhows to and from Syria and Persia to India's southwestern ports at Cochin and Cranganore. There is a well-documented report of the kidnapping of an Orthodox Bishop by the Portuguese while the former was headed to India in an Arab dhow[2b]. The Bishop was never seen again! In 1930 CE, the Pope succeeded in enticing several Indian Orthodox Christian priests to switch sides through an offer of immediate elevation to the status of Bishops in the Roman Catholic order.

The British Residents in India's former princely states as well as the Provincial Governors of British India actively assisted Christian missionaries from UK and other western nations to continue with their quest to Christianize India. They did that without coming into conflict with their Roman Catholic counterparts who had been on that path since the early sixteenth century. Thus, for nearly four hundred years, the entire Indian subcontinent became available to Western nations for Christianization. Even after India's Independence, the presence and influence of foreign missionaries in India have remained significant, mostly because of the tolerance of the large majority of Hindus who believe in pluralism. In contrast, the activities of all Christian missionaries in Pakistan and Bangladesh have been vastly curtailed due to the intolerance of Islam to the spread of other faiths.

PROSELYTIZING CHRISTIANS

I am not at all surprised at the emerging rise of Hindu nationalism in India, given the historical experience of the Hindus whose faith had been assaulted first by Muslim invaders and subsequently by European colonizers. Since the citizens of India can now think for themselves, they can demand that they be shielded from intrusive evangelical activities through the use of democratic means.

The Indian electorate has become sophisticated enough to distinguish between acts of selfless service and questionable acts of charity concocted by Christian missionaries involved in conversion activities. Such deceptive behaviors would have been an anathema to Jesus himself because we know that he insisted on not letting even one's left hand know what the right hand does as charity[4j]. I am also quite perplexed at the silence of liberal Indian Christians when they are confronted by the strident rhetoric of Indian evangelicals like Mr. John Dayal and Archbishop Alan de Lastic of New Delhi. So far, the latter seem to revel more in sowing seeds of discord between Christians and Hindus than in promoting religious amity between Hindus and other religious minorities.

In my opinion, Mr. Dayal showed poor judgment when he appeared before the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington DC in September 2000 when the Prime Minister of India (Mr. Vajpayee) was here on an official visit. Mr. Dayal should have thought of the possibility that the timing of that invitation extended to him by USCIRF was not an accident. It is quite likely that it was part of the US State Department's plan to place the visiting Prime Minister on his defensive and thereby weaken India's efforts to convey to the American public the destructive consequences of cross-border terrorism aided and abetted by Pakistan.

Parenthetically, I would like to express my dismay here at the absence of representation for Hindus on USCIRF. After all, Christian, Jewish, Bahai and Muslim faiths are represented by Americans on the Commission. But nearly a billion Hindus and another billion Buddhists on this planet have no representation on the Commission despite its claim of being a watchdog for “international religious freedom”. Therefore, I believe that fairness demands that both Hindu and Buddhist Americans get representation on the Commission. The term of most of the Commissioners now on the USCIRF is due to expire in May 2003.

While testifying before the USCIRF, Mr. Dayal vigorously argued against according recognition to Vishwa Hindu Parishad as an accredited UN-Non Governmental Organization (NGO)[14]. His objection remained unaffected despite the fact that many religious organizations representing Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are currently accredited to the UN as NGOs. Mr. Dayal demanded that the Indian Constitution continue to honor its commitment to citizens to freely “profess, practice and propagate” their faiths. But, he fails to comprehend the distinction between freedom to propagate a religion and the right to coercively convert people to another faith.

It has become clear to me that religious conversions using material enticements are coercive and therefore ought to be forbidden by law. For years, I used to think that the complaints of many Hindus about the use of economic inducements as a means of conversion to Christianity may be exaggerations until I personally came across incidents such as a Catholic school's offer to defray the marriage expenses of Hindu girls if they agree to wed Christian boys. Anti-conversion laws may be the only civil means available for Indian states to deter such nefarious conversion activities.

Mr. Dayal's website also contains articles alleging insensitivity on the part of some Hindu nationalists who “mock and blaspheme virgin birth, resurrection etc.[14]” If it is found to be true, it should be condemned just as vehemently as one should in the case of similar allegations made by Hindu organizations against Christian missionaries who ridicule Hindu beliefs.

Mr. Dayal also complains about blanket discrimination by Hindus against all minorities. He implies that discrimination and religious intolerance are the contributing factors to the reduction of the Christian population of India from 2.9% in 1947 to 2.3% in recent years[14]. But, he neglects to consider the probable impact of family planning measures used by the non-Catholic Christians as a more likely contributor for the small decline in population growth. He is silent on the dramatic declines of Hindus both in Pakistan (25% in 1947 to current 1%) and in Bangladesh (35% in 1971 to current 7%) as well as the rise in India's Muslim population from 8% in 1947 to its present level of 13%[15] [16]. In view of such demographic changes in that subcontinent, Mr. Dayal's claim of discrimination of religious minorities in India is not credible. It is disappointing that Mr. Dayal's website does not contain even a single word of Christian concern for the plight of nearly 300,000 Kashmiri Hindus who were displaced from their homes to the refugee camps of New Delhi[14].

Mr. Dayal equates the Hindutva concept of “one nation, one people, one culture” with the “Nazi-fascism of Europe”. Is not India's entire people one nation, one people and one culture? Isn't culture a derivative of multiple factors such as language, climate, diet, habits, music, literature, arts and other traditions with religions playing minor roles at best? No religion by itself can imprint a specific culture on an individual. The western Christian culture is quite different from the culture of the Coptic Christians of Egypt, just as it is with the Indian Orthodox Christian communities of Kerala. The culture of Muslims in Bosnia is not identical to the Muslims of India, Bangladesh or Pakistan. For an Indian of any religion to be offended by anyone's claim that India is one nation, one people and one culture is baffling to me. Precisely because India is one nation and one people, I hope that India's present government will finally muster the requisite political courage to enact a single civil code for all Indian nationals as well as develop a uniform system for the management of all its religious places of worship and religious schools.

Having read most of Mr. Dayal's polemical views and his explanations for the worsening of relations between Christians and Hindus in India, I believe that the 25 million Indian Christians who believe in India's pluralistic tradition would be better off by not allowing Mr. John Dayal to remain as their sole spokesman. Failure to do so will only result in more acrimony and strife among Hindus and Christians.

Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism originated as offshoots of Hinduism. Their founders were neither crucified nor exiled. The ancient history of India attests to the symbiotic existence of multiple religions in that subcontinent. Religious tolerance has been the norm in India for thousands of years. Therefore, the emergence of religious intolerance there needs to be studied seriously in the context of foreign funding of all religious activities in India. Foreign sources of funding derived by all religious and charitable organizations in India deserve close monitoring by its government just as the US has begun to do with regard to similar organizations registered here.

TOWARDS GLOBAL RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE

Regardless of their religious affiliations, all religious leaders of goodwill can find myriads of theological convergences if they are open to sincere and deep inter-faith explorations. While it is less threatening for the practitioners of non-Abrahamic faiths to undertake such faith-based voyages of discovery, the religious fundamentalists of the monotheistic faiths shun all such excursions.

India and China have a combined population of more than two billions who do not subscribe to Abrahamic faiths. Besides, China is becoming increasingly concerned at the inroads religions are making in that country. Therefore, it may be timely for the two nations to jointly seek an amendment to the UN Declaration of Human rights which will explicitly forbid religious conversions attempted through physical coercion or material inducement[17]. Western democracies which advocate a strict separation of church and state should be challenged to lend their support for such a measure, more so because of the emerging menace of Al Queda and its philosophical stance steeped in Koranic literalism which argues for the world-wide establishment of 'sharia', the law of Islam[18].

Therefore, I would like to propose further that secularists of all religions everywhere mount a vigorous campaign to limit full membership status and voting rights in the United Nations (UN) to countries that are truly secular. Theocratic nations should be encouraged to amend their Constitutions to reflect their secular status if they aspire to become full members of the UN. The US and many other western nations should also find such a proposition to be in tune with Jesus' advocacy to “give unto God what is God's and to Cesar what is Cesar's"[4k].

The US is particularly well poised to take the lead in such a move since the first amendment to the US Constitution explicitly erected a wall of separation between the church and the state. Thomas Jefferson, a liberal Christian President of the US, recognized very early the deleterious impact of religion on a pluralistic America which was then getting established. Writing about religion, he said that its negative potential “has been severely felt by mankind, and has filled the history of ten or twelve centuries with too many atrocities not to merit a proscription from meddling with government"[19]. He also objected to religious conversions rather strongly when he said that: “were the Pope, or his allies, to send in mission to us some thousands of Jesuit priests to convert us to their orthodoxy, I suspect that we should deem and treat it as a national aggression on our peace and faith"[20].

India and many other nations are facing similar challenges today from both fundamentalist Christians and militant Islamists. If liberal Indians of all religions do not speak up and challenge their fundamentalist counterparts, India's precious tradition of religious tolerance will become a mere footnote to its ancient history. Likewise, if there is no worldwide effort to contain theocracies and ostracize the militants of all religions, the new millennium may indeed witness many clashes of civilizations.

The UN may in fact be the last best hope for mankind to usher in a peaceful world devoid of religious upheavals. The liberal adherents of all religions are now at the crossroads of a crucial choice. They can either remain silent and permit their fundamentalist minorities to fan the flames of religious conflicts, or speak out against them and insist on religious tolerance as the only legitimate road to a peaceful world. As a Christian nurtured by the pluralistic tradition of India, my choice continues to be the latter.

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5 Comments:

At 2/17/2005 07:03:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Alex,

I cannot express how glad i am to have read your article. It is an indepth analysis of the subject and you deserve a lot of credit for writing this. Like you, from what i understood from your writings i am born Kerala in one of the Kerala syrian christian families and grew up in a pluralistic society learning to respect and understand other religions and cultures and i am quite proud of it. It is very disturbing and sad that the current wave of the so called born againism - if i may call it by that name - is challenging the timetested pluralistic society of ours. This not only creates an equal and opposite reaction from the other communities but also is in my openion hurts the community and church in the long run than doing it any good.

Most christians are quite vocal when it comes to condemning fundamentalist traits in the Moslem world.. If you see the behaviour of some of this conversion enthusiasts , they fall in the same category. Wherever you look in Kerala you see this mad fervor and discussions about christian spirituality and as Swami Vivekananda said several years ago - this is really a mad house. A mad house created by fanatics who want to disturb the communal amity in this state and elsewhere where Hindus , Muslims and Christians lived as brothers for centuries... the survival of Marthoma christians in Kerala for several centuries was primarily becos all religions learned to live respecting each other.

I am a bit surprised that since 2003 no one bothered to write any comment on this powerful article you wrote. You have this from me..congratulations and i hope we will be able to meet somewhere sometime and share our thoughts.

Best wishes... Cherian.

 
At 7/14/2006 07:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi,
I am very enlightened to read this article.
I am a Brahmin and I have Christian friends. Religion never bothered me or them.
When I saw phrases like non-believer should be punished, I just could not match this with the values practised by my Christian friends.
Now I know.
I happened to search net and arrive at this blog in the wake of Tirupati conversions.
I am very happy to see this article. May more Christians speak against fundamentalism and coercive conversions.
Also I request my RSS friends (I identify myself among them) to single out evangelists in stead of generalizing christians. Also they need to cautiously target fundamentalist muslims than generlising.
These would improve the fate our Country.
Regards
Ishwara Bhat

 
At 10/26/2006 04:25:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good article. Christians should first put their house in order. Most of the christians beleive Jesus & Mary as two more Hindu gods and offer pujas, arathis and emulate Hindu rituals. Blind forced conversions are aimless and leads only to tensions and disbeliefs.
It's high time the so called converters realise that there is better work to do and they cannot hope to convert at today's rate all the human population into christians for the next million years.
The conversion is only becoming one more industry and already there are several cases of frauds and wrong doings resulting in several so called priests behind bars.
People of losing faith on conversions to say the least

 
At 10/13/2008 08:16:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jesus's teachings are similar to those of Hinduism and Buddhism, for he was a practicing Hindu and practicing Buddhist during his lost years (and may be, even earlier).

http://www.google.co.in/search?q=%22jesus+in+India%22&start=0&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&client=firefox-a&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official

 
At 12/17/2008 11:15:00 PM, Blogger Anand JNS said...

Dear Alex

I was searching the net for months now, to find people of my ilk. Here, i found your great article.

I am a Hindu brahmin by birth (not so much by practice), had a lot of christian friends in school and college ... infact, we never looked upon ourselves as belonging to various deonominations of spirituality. But, today, the atmosphere in India is really bad. People are selling nationalism to earn a few more votes ... promoting religious bigotry of various forms (across religions) at the cost of "Civilizational heritage and Indian Nation state".

Some do it to spread their religion, some do it in the name of attacking the infidels, some do it in the name of defending the native culture ... overall, this is not a good situation.

Your article should reach wider audience and i will do my best to spread this forward.

Give me your email ID, stay in touch. I am, Anand, reachable at : anandjns@yahoo.com

GK

 

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