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

'The Church has harmed many Hindu families and communities and is still willing to do so'

Interview with Dr. David Frawley

Dr. David Frawley, director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, believes Christians should accept and understand religious pluralism. The former Catholic maintains he has nothing against Christ or Christians, but agrees with the VHP's demand for an apology from the Pope over the historical excesses against Hindus. In an e-mailed interview, the Vedic scholar spoke his mind to Archana Masih.

Could you explain your stance on Pope John Paul II's visit to India? Since there is a convergence many a time on his role as the religious head of the Catholic Church and the symbolic leader of the Vatican, in your view, in what capacity is he really coming to India?

China, Taiwan and Sri Lanka refused the Pope's request to visit and launch his new activities that aim at the evangelisation of Asia. Hindu majority India, though not a Christian country, has allowed him to do so. Therefore the Pope should feel grateful to the tolerant people of India. Clearly no Western country would give a state welcome to a Hindu religious leader seeking to promote Hindu conversion activities in the West.

India is one of the few countries that recognises the Pope as a head of state. The United States and most Western countries recognise the Pope only as a religious leader. Clearly the Pope is not coming to India as the political leader of a secular state but as a religious leader. He is conducting a religious mass in Delhi, not organising a trade mission.

The Catholic Church has a long and self-proclaimed policy of evangelisation or conversion and a special Asia synod to convert Asia. The Pope is coming to India to promote the cause of Catholicism, which means the conversion of Hindus. Naturally he will be friendly in this capacity, but his purpose has an obvious ulterior motive. He is not coming here because he wants to make a pilgrimage to honour the great Yogis and swamis of India or to visit her great temples and tirthas.

Today the Catholic Church is losing power in the West. Most Catholics are only nominal in their beliefs. For example, most American Catholics practise birth control that the Church does not approve of and don't attend church on a regular basis. The average age of priests and nuns is nearing the age of sixty and few younger people are coming in. The Church can still get a fair amount of money from rich Western economies but is clearly an institution in decline. Without replenishing its population base it is facing a severe crisis. India offers perhaps the best possibility for doing this with a large population with a history of religious devotion and monastic activity that could readily become priests and nuns.

Why do you believe it is important for him to apologise to the Hindus for the forced conversions in India?

The bloody history of the Church in America, Africa and Asia is an open book and well known. The Native Americans where I live in the United States still tell stories about how the feet of their people were cut off for refusing to walk to church or their tongues cut off for refusing to recite prayers. The church has claimed that its intolerance is a thing of the past. Yet even if one accepts that it has stopped today, which is debatable, it certainly went on well into this century. That the church was prominent in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and never really opposed Hitler or Mussolini, should not be forgotten.

The point is that if you don't apologise how can other groups believe that you have really given up the attitudes that caused such behaviour? Such conversion efforts are hurtful to the communities they target, even if no overt violence is involved. The Church has harmed many Hindu families and communities and is still willing to do so, by turning people against their native beliefs and customs.

Christians have made some apologies to the Native Americans and the black Africans for their oppression of them. Why don't Hindus count in this? Aren't they also human beings?

There have been many deeds in history and at present that have gone by without apologies and accountability. Is it worthwhile to resurrect such issues in the present context? What purpose does this serve?

The problem is that the same attitudes and behaviour that resulted in such violence in the past still go on today. The official policy of the Catholic Church today is still that Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and other Indian religions are not valid or true. This promotes division, misunderstanding and can still lead to violence.

Today we have given up the doctrine of racial superiority that the White Europeans used to justify their colonial rule. But the attitude of religious superiority -- that only Christianity is true and the other religions are false -- still goes on. Such religious exclusivism like racism is backward and prejudicial. If I believe, as the Church teaches, that my non-Catholic neighbours will go to hell, it doesn't do much for communal harmony. And new converts take these beliefs much more seriously.

What are the atrocities perpetrated against Hindus by the Christians that you would like to see the Pope apologise about? Can you name some of these crimes?

The Goa Inquisition was probably the worst and involved torture and murder of thousands of Hindus and the destruction of many Hindu temples over a period of several decades. It was done by the same groups that promoted the genocide of Native Americans. But Church policy all along has been that Hinduism is bad and unless Hindus convert they cannot be saved. This easily gives rise to excesses. After all if I believe that if you don't join my religion you will suffer in eternal hell, for your benefit I must do everything possible, which easily leads to excesses.

What are the reasons for the sudden anger against the Christians?

The anger is not so much sudden as that today we have a more aware Hindu populace and a larger media forum for airing such grievances. Oppressed religious and social groups of all types are now making such protests. Christians will more quickly protest against Hindus if they feel that Hindus are not treating them fairly. Hindus have actually protested a lot less than other groups, though they have more commonly been the target of denigration. Such a Hindu awakening was inevitable. The real question is why it took so long.

Another issue is that the Hindu reconversion movement has started, which Christians find threatening and which highlights this issue.

Why have Christians replaced Muslims as the hate objects for Hindus? Is it true that the VHP's campaign is driven because Sonia Gandhi is a Christian?

I don't think that Hindus hate Christians. They are not targeting Christians for conversion or calling them devil worshippers as the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant sect in America to which both Bill Clinton and Al Gore belong, are calling Hindus. Rather Hindus are challenging Christian prejudices against Hindus that cause mistrust and hatred of Hindus by Christians. You will find a picture of Christ in many Hindu homes, but you won't find any picture of Krishna in any Christian homes.

Nor do Hindus hate Muslims. It is the general Muslim view that Hindus are idolators, polytheists and kafirs and doomed in the eyes of Allah. Hindus have no such doctrines about Islam. Hindu dislike of Christianity and Islam is largely a backlash against the centuries long efforts to convert them which are still going on.

I don't think the VHP campaign would stop if Sonia Gandhi left politics either. That Sonia Gandhi is a Christian may be a matter of concern for Hindus because of the Christian seeking to convert Hindus. Clearly most Christians in America would not be happy if a Hindu became the head of a major American political party, particularly if Hindus were actively trying to convert Christians in America.

The greater issue is caused by the increasing Christian evangelisation activities in India. Look throughout the country, particularly in the South and you will find them expanding almost everywhere.

Why should there be an evangelisation of Asia at all? Don't we live in a global society in which we must recognise pluralism in religion just as we do in culture or language? Are not the great religions of Asia good enough and a great legacy for the entire world? Why do Westerners come to India? It is mainly to find spiritual teachings that they didn't find in their own Western Christian backgrounds.

Others argue that since only about three per cent of India has become Christian why should one care? But the areas that have become Christian, like the northeast, are getting progressively alienated from the rest of India and seeking to secede from the country. And the possibility of dramatically more conversions in the future cannot be ruled out. That someone has fired a gun against you and missed is no reason not to take it seriously, particularly if he is loading a better gun for further shots. The point is that it is unkind to begin with.

As a former Catholic, why are you suspicious of the Pope's campaign? What is it about Pope John Paul II that makes you suspicious of him?

As a former Catholic, I am well aware that most Catholics have no real respect for Hinduism. My uncle became a missionary to convert Native Americans and save them from hell, and Hindus are placed in the same category. The current Pope is a well-known conservative promoting evangelical activity throughout the world, but he covers his actions with a veneer of social liberalism.

Today no major Catholic leaders in the West are saying that Hinduism is a great and spiritual religion that is worthy of respect like Christianity. Should they succeed in converting Hindu India to Catholicism they would happily put an end to the great Yogic and Vedantic traditions that are perhaps the soul of this country, which would be a great loss to humanity. We have enough Christian countries in the world today, but there is only one India and it is not Christianity which has made the civilisation of India unique and great.

Catholicism has a long history of co-opting other beliefs. It is willing to give an apparent honour and regard to something, as long as it is placed under the supremacy of Christianity. For example, the church subordinated the old pagan Greek philosophies of Aristotle and Plato, which it made the basis of Christian theology. It hopes to do the same thing with Hindu and Buddhist philosophies, which it hopes to fashion as a prelude to the message of Christ.

In South India Catholic priests dress up like Hindu swamis and call their organisations ashrams but are still actively engaged in conversion. Their Hindu dress is not don to honour Hindu traditions but to make Christianity more acceptable to the local population, like McDonalds offering vegetarian burgers in India for Hindus who won't eat the usual hamburger.

Similarly, the Pope will probably speak of the greatness of India and the need for brotherhood and human rights but he will certainly not say that Hindus don't need to convert to Christianity. He will portray Christianity as a religion of compassion, equality and democracy to appeal to the poor in India, though historically Christianity has commonly been aligned with monarchies, colonial armies, fascist states and ruling juntas.

Hindus may confuse such statements of general human regard with real religious tolerance or even with an acceptance of Hinduism. They may confuse a co-opting of their religion with a real regard for it. The new Catholic strategy is that Hinduism is all right as far as it goes but will only reach its real fulfilment when it accepts Christ. This is the same old conversion ploy, only done in a more covert way. The American Protestants, who still portray Hinduism as a religion of the devil, are at least more honest about their views and their intentions.

The Pope is a State guest, invited by the Government of India, so won't the stance of the VHP undermine India's secular tradition and embarrass A B Vajpayee -- even his alliance partners do not agree with such protests.

Not at all. In America visits of foreign heads of states are often marked by protests. When the Chinese president was here recently many Americans mainly of Chinese ancestry protested the visit, including some who were Democrats. Such protests are part of democracy. Islamic groups in America have protested the visit of Israeli leaders as well. The Pope cannot be made immune to such protests. They are part of secular traditions which don't require the people in any country to bow down to a foreign leader, whether he is a religious figure or not.

If in spite of the pressure applied for the apology, and the Pope does not apologise, will it be a loss of face for the VHP and other organisations demanding for the same?

I don't think anyone expects the current Pope to make such an apology, though a future Pope might do so. But the case has to be brought out anyway for the sake of truth and for posterity. The fact that it is coming out is beneficial for Hindus. Hindus have long been too quiet about the attacks against them. Hindus tend to bow down to any religious leader as a holy man, even one who does not respect their traditions or honour their gods and sages. It is actually more important that Hindus change than that the pope changes.

The Pope doesn't want to apologise to Hindus because he doesn't want to recognise Hinduism as a valid religion. He won't even mention the word Hinduism. He will call Diwali an Indian cultural festival, not a Hindu religious event.

What impact do you think the Pope's visit is going to have on the socio-religious culture of India?

Hopefully it will make Hindus more savvy about what is going on in the world. Current missionary plans to convert India, both by Catholics and Protestants, are the greatest in history in terms of financial backing, media manipulation and manpower support. An entire new attack is being launched. China is also emerging as a new target. Religious tolerance is not a one way street. We cannot ask Hindus to honour Christianity when Christians, starting with the pope, don't honour Hinduism, however much they may talk of God, humanity or peace.

Why can't the Pope say that Christianity is not the only way and that Hinduism by itself can be enough? That would be an expression of tolerance and open-mindedness. Why are Hindus who accept the validity of many paths called "hardliners" while a Pope who refuses to do so is honoured as a holy man? Is not pluralism a sign of tolerance and exclusivism the hallmark of intolerance?

Catholicism today is not a pluralistic tradition honouring different religious and spiritual paths as valid. It is an exclusivist tradition dominated by a leader who will not accept a Buddha, Krishna, Rama or Guru Nanak as a Son of God but only Jesus. What does that say about how he views India and the kinds of plans he intends to promote here?

Hopefully the Pope's visit will get people to really think about these matters.

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