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, July 09, 2003

The spectre of religious freedom

by Swami Dayanand Saraswati

The Indian Express, Wednesday, July 09, 2003

Addressing bishops from India during their Ad Limina visit to the Vatican, the Pope charged that the ‘‘free exercise of natural right to religious freedom’’ is prohibited in India. The pontiff is confusing freedom of religion with the freedom to evangelise and convert, says Swami Dayanand Saraswati.


The recent papal contention that there is prohibition of religious freedom in India is an allegation to be taken seriously.

Addressing the Bishops of India during their Ad Limina visit to the Vatican, the Pope charged that the ‘‘free exercise of the natural right to religious freedom’’ is prohibited in India. A similar concern was registered in the report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, which declared India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC).


Both the Vatican and the US Commission have cited the introduction of ‘‘anti-conversion’’ Bills in some Indian States as the basis for their conclusions. To those who care to read these Bills, however, it is clear that they do show a clear intent to make ‘‘the use of force or allurement or fraudulent means’’ unlawful in conversion activities (Tamil Nadu Ordinance No. 9 of 2002). Which just-minded person would not applaud a State’s efforts to prohibit the use of such means? Is it not, then an embarrassment to those involved in conversion activities that the state finds it necessary to issue an ordinance prohibiting these?

Christian Missionaries have always assumed complete freedom to evangelise and convert. And history has shown that they have felt entitled to do so by any means. They honestly feel that it is not only their right, but their solemn duty to convert, not just individuals, but entire nations. Their scripture enjoins them, and the Pope repeatedly reminds them to ‘‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations (Mt 28:20).’’ This perception of religious freedom needs objective examination.

In my perception there is religious freedom wherein one is free to live one’s religious life without being inhibited by legislation or being subject to organised persecutions . One would think that all those who desire freedom of religion would find this a reasonable and accurate perception. But this freedom is not adequate for some; it does not include the freedom to evangelise and convert.

I want to be clear about what I mean by ‘evangelise and convert’. I do not mean that one should not have the freedom to ‘‘manifest one’s religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance,’’ as stipulated in Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. This is an inalienable right of all human beings that is to be cherished and protected. However, one who considers oneself subject to a mandate to convert people to one’s own faith has a world-view that does not permit religious freedom. His inner religious landscape does not have any place for the practice of religions other than his/her own.

When the practice of one’s religion involves evangelising in order to bring outsiders into one’s fold of believers, one is bound to become blind to a certain truth. One cannot, under these circumstances, recognise that one is intruding into the sanctity of the inner religious space of others.

The blindness is evident when, in the same address, one can make a passionate appeal for evangelisation, and also, for a democracy to support it that has ‘‘respect for religious freedom, for this is the right which touches on the individual’s most private and sovereign interior freedom’’ (Address of Pope John Paul II to the New Ambassador of India, 13 December 2002 cited in address to Bishops of India, May 2003). While recognising an individual’s religious freedom as ‘‘most private and sovereign,’’ there is, at the same time, an exhortation to invade this private, sacred space. In other words, to trample upon the very freedom one allegedly wishes to preserve. The contradiction reveals a form of religious arrogance, known as fundamentalism.

I have no intention of disparaging any religion here, but rather, to be very clear about certain realities. Integral to a converting religion is conversion. And a commitment to conversion involves certain unavoidable assumptions. Even when there is no visible attempt to evangelise and convert at a given time and place, the lull is not due to any newly discovered tolerance towards other religions. The underlying assumptions and commitment do not allow for that. The lull is only a strategic what, biding time for the moment when there is the desired ‘‘religious freedom’’.

Ethnic religions the world over do not now, nor have they ever evangelised, Why? In the minds of the people given to these traditions there is total absence of religious intolerance. The tenets and mores of those traditions have allowed the people who hold them to naturally grant total freedom to others to practice their religion. It is never an issue. But this unquestioned granting of religious freedom has given the initial thumb-space for the aggressive traditions to evangelise, convert and crase indigenous religions and their cultures from many countries, and even some continents. This is a crucial fact that, if overlooked, can, and has distorted the perception of the situation.

It is so important to understand that today, an objection to conversion from any indigenous religious leadership is an urgently necessary and long-overdue assertion, not a violation, of human rights. In all fairness, such an objection could not be further from being a violation of human rights, much less religious fundamentalism.

I know that a Hindu is free from any malice toward any form of religious practice. I also know that there is no religious mandate in the Hindu Dharma to bring other religionists to the Hindu fold. Therefore, a Hindu is fundamentally accommodating in terms of religious pursuits. And it is common knowledge that, because of this, India has been the historical refuge of the religiously persecuted and disenfranchised. Yet, if a Hindu wants his or her religious privacy respected and not intruded upon, immediately the spectre of ‘‘religious freedom’’ is raised at all possible levels of legal as well as public forums. This extends well beyond our domestic borders and has far-reaching consequences for our quality of life. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends that its Government utilise various tools, such as economic sanctions, to exert pressure on Countries of Particular Concern (CPC), like India, in order to ensure adequate ‘‘religious freedom’’ for their evangelism and conversion programmes. A deeper analysis of the facts reveals that such measures are clearly unjust.

If Pope John Paul II could heed his own words in his recent address to the Bishops of India on their ad limina visit to the Vatican, the interests of peaceful coexistence of religions, and of people of good will everywhere would be well served. On that occasion, the Pontiff said to the Bishops of India. ‘‘To love the least among us without expecting anything in return is truly to love Christ.’’ In the current climate this appears to be a tall order for evangelising religions. Hindus in India, on the other hand, have been accommodating religions of all stripes with extraordinary grace for centuries, and if allowed, will continue to do so for centuries to come. This in no way, however, should be construed as a license for abuses such as those prohibited in the conversion ordinances. Nor could a protest against such abuses be construed, by decent people anywhere, as a violation of any kind of human right.

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