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.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Conversations with foreign-funded charity

Sudheendra Kulkarni
Oct 12, 2008

Has the time come for the Government to set up a National Commission to investigate religious conversions in India? Certainly. Let the Nation know how many conversions have taken place from—and into—Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Sikhism and other faiths since 1947. Let the commission throw light on the districts where, and how, significant changes in religious demography have taken place, and whether conversions have created resentment and social disharmony in their wake.

An unbiased commission would reveal three irrefutable facts: (1) Christianity accounts for the largest number of

converts; (2) Christian organisations conduct service activities—schools, hospitals, poverty-alleviation programmes, relief during calamities, etc.—with exemplary dedication and professionalism. However, some of them, though not all, make the conversion agenda a part of their seva agenda; (3) Foreign funds supporting these charitable activities have greatly aided conversions.

Take, for example, the following information, pertaining to the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), available on the website of the Union Home Ministry. During 2005-06, Rs 7,877 crore was received by way of foreign donations to various NGOs, up from Rs 5,105 crore in 2003-04. Tamil Nadu (Rs 1,610 crore) and Andhra Pradesh (Rs 1,011 crore) were among the highest recipients. The highest foreign donors were Gospel Fellowship Trust USA (Rs 229 crore), Gospel for Asia (Rs 137 crore), Foundation Vincent E Ferrer, Spain (Rs 104.23 crores) and Christian Aid, UK (Rs 80.16 crores). The largest recipients were World Vision (Rs 256 crore), Caritas India (Rs 193 crore), Rural Development Trust Andhra Pradesh (Rs 127 crore), Churches Auxiliary for Social Action (Rs. 95.88 crores) and Gospel For Asia (Rs. 58.29 crore). The funds received by some of these organisations have trebled or quadrupled in just three years since the formation of the UPA Government.

If the official Christian population in India is barely 3 per cent, why do Christian NGOs receive the largest share of foreign funds? From Christian organisations that are known to support evangelism in many Asian countries?

In my travels in Karnataka, my home state, I have seen significant conversions to Christianity having taken place in recent years wherever World Vision and other foreign-funded NGOs started their charitable activities. Kannada newspapers in the past few weeks have carried graphic accounts of how proselytisation is packaged with charity, especially targeting vulnerable sections of society. There is resentment in Assam against World Vision's flood-relief operations in Majuli, a large island in the Brahmaputra and a sacred seat of the Vaishnava monastery of Sankara Deva, the great reformist saint.

Tripura is one of the Indian states where, as the CPI(M) Chief Minister Manik Sarkar has himself acknowledged, the foreign-funded Baptist church supports subversive activities, including the conversion of tribals. The church-backed separatist outfit, National Liberation Front of Tripura (NLFT), gunned down 16 Hindus at a marketplace in West Tripura district on January 13, 2002, on the eve of Makar Sankranti, an incident that went largely uncommented by the national media.

The Internet has many reports about Buddhist resentment against World Vision and other evangelical bodies operating in Mongolia, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar and even Tibet, "using unethical methods, under the guise of being charitable organisations, to buy converts in Asia". The Australian, a leading newspaper of Australia, reported on December 24, 2005: "Tensions between Muslims and Western aid workers have begun to erupt in Aceh as the tsunami-devastated Indonesian province (where 170,000 people died) slowly recovers. Islamic activists have claimed that aid workers are secretly attempting to convert Muslims to Christianity, pointing particularly to World Vision, the International Catholic Mission and Church World Service."

Lt Col A.S. Amarasekera, a Sri Lankan Buddhist activist, has expressed the following fear: "While everyone is focusing their minds on the LTTE problem, we Sinhalese Buddhists are pitted against another force as dangerous: the dangers that the Sinhalese Buddhist way of life will have to face due to conversions in the near future. What happened in South Korea, where the 80 per cent Buddhist population was reduced to 18 per cent in five decades, will be repeated here¿ It (is) proved beyond reasonable doubt that World Vision, an American-funded Christian evangelical organisation, was surreptitiously trying to convert Sinhalese Buddhists into Christianity."

The recent attacks on churches in Orissa and elsewhere have been justifiably condemned by all patriotic individuals. However, as I stated in my column last week, a distinction must be made between a violent campaign against our Christian brethren and a non-violent, democratic campaign against organised conversions using foreign funds. I happened to participate in a remarkable inter-religion conference on conversions organised by the Vatican in collaboration with the World Council of Churches, Geneva, a Protestant body, in Lariano (Italy) in May 2006. Let me mention here some of the recommendations in a report unanimously adopted by the conference.
  • "While everyone has a right to invite others to an understanding of their faith, it should not be exercised by violating other's rights and religious sensibilities. At the same time, all should heal themselves from the obsession of converting others."
  • "Freedom of religion enjoins upon all of us the equally non-negotiable responsibility to respect faiths other than our own, and never to denigrate, vilify or misrepresent them for the purpose of affirming superiority of our faith."
  • "Errors have been perpetrated and injustice committed by the adherents of every faith. Therefore, it is incumbent on every community to conduct honest self-critical examination of its historical conduct as well as its doctrinal/theological precepts. Such self-criticism and repentance should lead to necessary reforms inter alia on the issue of conversion."
  • "A particular reform that we would commend to practitioners and establishments of all faiths is to ensure that conversion by 'unethical' means are discouraged and rejected by one and all. There should be transparency in the practice of inviting others to one's faith."
  • "While deeply appreciating humanitarian work by faith communities, we feel that it should be conducted without any ulterior motives. In the area of humanitarian service in times of need, what we can do together, we should not do separately."
  • "No faith organisation should take advantage of vulnerable sections of society, such as children and the disabled."
  • "We see the need for and usefulness of a continuing exercise to collectively evolve a 'code of conduct' on conversion, which all faiths should follow."
Why shouldn't there be a sustained and sincere all-religion debate in India on an anti-conversion law in the spirit of the above recommendations?

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