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, July 10, 2008

'Harvesting Souls for God' and Religious Harmony

by Harendra De Silva

The review by Allen Carr of Paul Hattaway's Christian Evangelist publication 'Peoples of the Buddhist World' should be an eye opener to Sri Lankans of all religious persuasions. During the past few years, certain misguided Sri Lankan Christians wrote to the papers declaring the innocence of Evangelical Christians, but this book quite clearly demonstrates the weakness of their claims. To its credit the Catholic Church in the island has condemned the way the fundamentalists go about their proselytism, but sections of Sri Lanka's Christian community continue to deny that there is a problem with the worldview of Christian evangelists that is not conducive towards inter-religious harmony in a multi religious country such as Sri Lanka.

What is clear is that Christian evangelists in Sri Lanka and indeed the rest of the world are not interested in dialogue or coexistence. What they desire is to ensure the demise other religions, whether it be Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam or Judaism and their replacement with Christianity. Currently in Sri Lanka there are numerous Christian evangelical groups working to "harvest souls for God." They are represented by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL). This umbrella group is actively working to convert not only Buddhists, but Hindus and Muslims as well. The Tamils of the upcountry and those in refugee camps, and the Muslims of Puttalam as well as the Malay community are the main minority non-Christian groups targeted for conversion.

The NCEASL must realise that the aggressive and unethical activities of various Christian missionary groups in the island have caused religious tension in areas where previously people of different religions had been living in peace. It must also realise that using poverty, destitution, war and natural disasters as tools for conversion goes against accepted norms of decency and morality. As much as freedom of religion is to be cherished and upheld, it does not include the freedom to refer to other religions in a derogatory manner, divide villages along religious lines and create religious conflict. Such acts are not in the welfare of the Sri Lankan people or the Sri Lankan nation.

Religious harmony requires a healthy respect for others and their freedom to live in a society without religious coercion. It requires a recognition of the fact that whilst we may not agree with other belief systems, they may be equally valid paths to the divine. When one group aggressively targets others for conversion, for "harvesting souls," and characterizes their relationship with other traditions as a "spiritual battle" the very foundation of religious harmony is destroyed.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka needs to re-examine how its member organisations go about spreading the Gospel in Sri Lanka, a country where memories of Christian oppression during the colonial period still remain in the national psyche. The two largest non-Christian traditions in the island, Buddhism and Hinduism, were severely oppressed for close to 500 years at the hands of over zealous Christians with temples destroyed, believers and clergy killed and prohibitions on the practice of Buddhism and Hinduism in areas where Christians ruled. The Muslim community were also not spared as their mosques were demolished and their population expelled from Christian areas to other parts of the island. Many Sri Lankans are worried over the possible return of that aggressive and iconoclastic brand of Christianity that seeks to oppress and destroy rather than coexist in peace and harmony.

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