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 02, 2005

Church Distances Itself From “Unethical” Conversions

Date: January 21, 2004

But Defends Religious Liberties in Sri Lanka

The Catholic Church is trying to distance itself from some Christian groups that have come under criticism in this Buddhist-majority nation for bribing poor people to convert.

An anti-Christian backlash has led to attacks on Catholic churches, and fueled demands for a law to ban what some Buddhist monks call "unethical conversions."

Against this backdrop the Catholic bishops' conference issued a statement.

"We, the bishops of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka," the statement says, "are deeply conscious of the social unrest alleged to be caused by certain activities of the fundamentalist Christian sects, particularly by the more radical elements."

"It must be stated that the Catholic Church is not associated in any way with any of these sects," the statement says. "We do not support any of the measures, such as material enticements or undue pressures that are alleged to be made by these groups in order to carry out so-called unethical conversions."

The bishops' conference also came out against any laws that would prohibit religious conversions.

"In fact," the conference says, "legislation would only exacerbate the situation further. For instance, if a prosecution is initiated against supposed 'unethical' conversion, the adversarial court proceedings will polarize our society and lead to a serious erosion in interreligious relations."

Below is the full statement issued by the Sri Lankan bishops' conference on the proposed anti-conversion legislation. The text was slightly adapted here.

* * *

We express our grave concern over the recent increase in religious tension in our country. At this time we wish to reiterate our resolve in a united Sri Lanka in which people of all faiths and beliefs would live together in harmony with dignity and mutual respect.

We are aware that the present climate is due to the concern that "unethical" conversions from one religion to another are taking place. We too express our unequivocal disapproval on the use of material enticements to gain converts. It is indeed important to find effective ways to deal with this issue if we are to create an atmosphere of religious amity devoid of suspicion. We need to come up with a method that is fair and dignified and one that will actually diffuse tensions and promote religious harmony.

We have given our most anxious and careful consideration to the suggestion that legislation be enacted to deal with the issue of "unethical" conversions. We are of the opinion that criminalizing the practice of "unethical" conversions will not bring such a situation to an end. In fact, legislation would only exacerbate the situation further. For instance, if a prosecution is initiated against supposed "unethical" conversion, the adversarial court proceedings will polarize our society and lead to a serious erosion in interreligious relations. Even if at the end of the court proceedings, a person is found "guilty," he would be considered a victim of oppressive draconian legislation and become a martyr among his followers. The dent the whole process makes in the relations between communities may become worse than the original problem.

We are all aware that there are a multitude of reasons for people to change religions. It would not be an exaggeration to state that the reasons in every single instance of conversion from one religion to another would be unique and personal to the individual concerned. Therefore it is nigh impossible to list all the probable causes for conversion and consequently it would never be possible to have a consensus on criminalising what might be termed "unacceptable" reasons for conversion or "acceptable" reasons for conversion.

All religions offer some kind of solace to its adherents, the inspiration that a religion provides to an individual, is personal to that individual concerned, and others cannot stand in judgement as to the rationale of such motivation. It must eventually be left to the individual concerned to reconcile his or her motivations.

We are also aware that prohibitive legislation can sometimes become an instrument of abuse, harassment and intimidation against minority religions in the country. That is the reason when the Tamil Nadu Legislature adopted an Ordinance to restrict conversions, the Buddhists in Tamil Nadu joined the Christians to protest and defy the law. More recently in Gujarat, thousands converted to Buddhism in a public act of defiance after similar legislation was enacted.

We a nation that ought to have learnt lessons from shortsighted majoritarian laws on language, can ill-afford a religious divide on account of similar impulses.

We are encouraged by the progressive measures adopted in abolishing the criminal defamation legislation. Here the basic right to freedom of expression was upheld, while a "standard-ensuring" mechanism in the form of a "Press Complaints Commission" was established. In line with such progressive measures relating to individual freedom in our country, we suggest that an interreligious body modelled on similar lines be established to inquire into and investigate any allegations of supposed "unethical practices."

The condemnation of any such practices by a representative body, which has the confidence of the major religions of our country, will certainly be a better alternative. This mechanism can also undertake the broader tasks of proactively taking steps to build trust and mutual respect among the religious communities.

We for our part are always willing to participate in such an endeavour. We are of the opinion that this is a better way to arrest the declining situation rather than prohibitive legislation which will aggravate religious tensions and in the long-term lead to more difficulties than solutions.

We also wish to state that the Catholic Church is committed to serving the people of this country irrespective of their religious affiliations and that we, like all other religions, also make our tenets known to all the people. We do not coerce anybody to convert and join our Church, but would stand by an individual's right to either retain or adopt a religion of his or her choice. After all, every religion in the world has had converts to its ranks; without which it could not have grown. Every major religion practiced in our country today originated elsewhere but was adopted as their own by the people of our country. Even today eastern religions like Buddhism, Hinduism and Islam are embraced by many in the west as a result of the efforts taken to propagate them in those countries.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference is confident that our people have the resilience needed to overcome the present religious strife and call upon the leaders of the other religions to set up an interreligious body that can take meaningful steps to address the present concerns rather than enact any counterproductive legislation that will only cause further divisions in our already fragmented society.

We must work towards a process of reconciliation which will integrate our society as people of one country, appreciating the diversity and most importantly respecting the multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual, character of our nation and our people.

Archbishop Oswald Gomis
Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sri Lanka

Bishop Marius Peiris
Secretary General
Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sri Lanka

14th January 2004


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