Pope Benedict XVI is reported to have raised the question of religious freedom at a meeting with our Ambassador to the Vatican. At this meeting the Pope praised India's traditions of freedom and inter-religious harmony. Freedom of religion is the right to maintain one's religion or to change it without being subjected to any pressure or inducement.
Freedom of religion is protected by the Constitution of India and is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Whilst freedom of religion is a basic human right, proselytism receives universal condemnation. Proselytism is defined as the use of unscrupulous methods of persuasion such as material inducements, psychological pressure or spiritual threats to compel a person to change his or her religion.
Proselytism is opposed on several grounds; it attacks other religious beliefs and practices and proclaims that its own religion is the only way to salvation. It is often supported by financial resources and marketing techniques that make local religious activities see second rate and inferior.
The Catholic Church condemns proselytizing activities. The Second Vatican Council, whilst defending freedom of religion, denounced proselytism in very strong terms: "In spreading religious faith and in introducing religious practices, everyone ought at all times to refrain from any manner of action which might seem to carry a hint of coercion or a kind of persuasion that would be dishonorable or unworthy, especially when dealing with poor or uneducated people. Such a manner of action would have to be considered as abuse of one’s own right and a violation of the right of others."
The late Pope John Paul II often referred to the Evangelical sects in Christianity and called them "rapacious wolves devouring Catholics and causing divisions and discord in our communities." John Paul II stressed the danger of underestimating "a certain strategy employing notable economic resources to crack Catholic unity."
The concerns of the Pope regarding proselytism are also voiced by the Protestant churches. A document "The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness" was formulated in September 1995 by the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches which represents the major Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church.
This document refers to "serious concern about tension and conflicts created by proselytism in nearly all parts of the world". It mentions "instances in the developing world in which proselytism takes advantage of people’s misfortunes e.g. in situations of poverty in villages, to induce change in their religious affiliation."
It calls for awareness of the "reality of diversity rooted in theological traditions and in various geographical, historical and cultural contexts" and denounces "the use of coercive or manipulative methods in evangelism".
The statement rejects "all violations of religious freedom and all forms of religious intolerance as well as every attempt to impose belief and practices on others or to coerce others in the name of religion". It states "proselytism can violate or manipulate the right of the individual and can exacerbate tense and delicate relations between communities and thus destabilize society."
Among the nature and characteristics of proselytism the document mentions "extending explicit or implicit offers of education, healthcare or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts" and "manipulative activities and practices that exploit people's needs, weaknesses or lack of education specially in situations of distress and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity".
The statement concludes "whilst our focus in this document in on the relationship between Christians it is important to seek the mutual application of these principles also in inter faith relations. Both Christians and communities of other faiths complain about unworthy and unacceptable methods of seeking converts from their respective communities. Increased cooperation and dialogue among people of different faiths could result in witness offered to one another that would respect human freedom and dignity and will be free from the negative activities described above."
The issue of conversions has became a major socio-religious and political issue in India. In some tribal areas, Christian and Hindu missionaries confront each other on this subject.
Organized attempts at mass conversion or reconversion backed by financial or political power can have an explosive backlash to the point of undermining public order. Mainline Christian theologians see both the Sangh Parivar's hindutva ideology and Christian campaigns for evangelization of India as bearing a fundamentalist attitude and an aggressive methodology to achieve their respective goals.
Most Indian Christian theologians disapprove of organized conversions, favour interreligious dialogue and express the need to study other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even tribal faiths so that Christianity learns from their many valuable insights.
Organized drives for conversion and reconversion should stop. They violate the Constitution of India. Yet specific legislation such as the anti-conversion laws passed by some States in India can only promote religious intolerance and animosity, may be misused by executive authorities and is not justified from the very limited positive results obtained. Government should rather, in a discreet manner, promote an agreement among the religious heads of all major faiths in the country to stop proselytism. Given the positive mindset of Indian theologians this is very much possible.
The Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences (FABC) articulates its theological vision thus, "Asia is the womb of the great World religions. All great scriptural religions were born on Asian soil. The Church has to be in constant dialogue with the religions of Asia and to embark or this with great seriousness.... There may be more truth about God and life than it is made known to us through the Jesus of history and the Church. As such Christians who take Christ’s injunction seriously must search for this Truth in the various religions of the World" (FABC Resource Manual for Catholics in Asia, pp189,288)
On the question of proselytism the FABC says "a phenomenon which continues to awaken the most resentment among the peoples of Asia is that of proselytism and conversion. In the minds of Asians, the Church’s primary objective seems to be to convert as many people as she can so as to increase her little flock. Church expansion is also seen as a Western extension. The increase in the number of Church movements engaged in aggressive and militant evangelization (understood in the very narrow sense of the word) is certainly a cause for concern for our brothers and sisters of other faiths.
Perhaps, it might be good to be reminded of the Golden Rule which nearly all religions speak of: do not do others what you do not want done to yourself." (Resource Manual p 286).