VATICAN LETTER May-19-2006 (810 words) Backgrounder. With photo. xxxi
Legislating conversions: Weighing the message vs. the person
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- Pope Benedict XVI and a senior Vatican official voiced their concern over the lack of religious freedom in some countries, including unjust restrictions on a person's right to convert from one religious faith to another.
But while the pope and the Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, were making separate appeals for greater reciprocity in respecting the freedom of worship in mid-May, the Vatican was also co-sponsoring a meeting about how some religious groups abuse liberties by proselytizing, or by evangelizing in aggressive or deceptive ways.
Iraq, for example, has become an open field for foreigners looking for fresh converts.
Some Catholic Church leaders and aid organizations have expressed concern about new Christian groups coming in and luring Iraqis to their churches with offers of cash, clothing, food or jobs. The blatant proselytism in a predominantly Muslim country has made all Christians seem suspect or looked upon with hostility, some Catholic leaders and aid workers said.
Meanwhile, reports of aggressive proselytism and reportedly forced conversions in mostly Hindu India have fueled religious tensions and violence there and have prompted some regional governments to pass laws banning proselytism or religious conversion.
On the one hand, the Catholic Church would like governments to guarantee full religious freedom, including the freedom to convert.
In his May 18 address to Amitava Tripathi, India's new ambassador to the Vatican, the pope said, "the reprehensible attempt to legislate clearly discriminatory restrictions" on religious freedom "must be firmly rejected."
But on the other hand, some of these countries endorsing religious restrictions might be hesitant to loosen the reins, especially after reports about the aggressive nature of some Christian missionaries.
Imam Abdul Rashied Omar, who teaches Islamic ethics at the University of Notre Dame, Ind., was one of the 27 participants attending discussions about proselytism and conversion in the meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the World Council of Churches Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue.
The gathering, held May 12-16 in Lariano, south of Rome, was to be part of a three-year project aimed at creating "a code of conduct" for converting people of other religious faiths.
In a May 15 telephone interview with Catholic News Service, the South African imam said he and some Muslim scholars want to re-examine Islam's traditional law against apostasy, which in some places is a punishable offense. But if scholars are going to successfully advance such reforms, Christians must practice and promote ethical evangelization, he said.
The imam said Muslim communities would have to be able to trust missionaries or aid groups' intentions and be confident that a change in laws concerning apostasy and evangelization would not amount to throwing open the doors to aggressive proselytizers.
Another participant, Sadhvi Vrnda Chaitanya, a Hindu monk from southern India, told CNS that India's poor and uneducated are especially vulnerable to coercive or deceptive methods of evangelization.
She said some groups might tell people to attend a church-based group or to send their children to Sunday school because rice will be offered there. She said some preachers tell villagers, "Your God cannot protect you. Give our God a try," which might tempt Hindus suffering from poverty, social stigmas, physical ailments or disabilities.
Chaitanya said religious organizations should continue their aid to the world's poor, but that it should not be tainted by evangelization or connected with conversion.
Interreligious dialogue, too, she said, should not be used as a platform for evangelizing others.
"If you have something to share, whether it is the good news or the mission of Jesus, please do so in a manner that is transparent and evident" and not disguised as dialogue, she said.
Despite disagreements among the participants, who included Jews, Buddhists, and Pentecostal Christians, all came up with 10 agreed-upon points, published May 16 by the WCC. Most notable was the appeal for individuals to "heal themselves from the obsession of converting others." While people have the right "to invite others to an understanding of their faith," it must be a transparent invitation that avoids denigrating other faiths "for the purpose of affirming superiority" of one's own beliefs, it said.
Aid work must not hide any ulterior motives and avoid exploiting vulnerable people like children and the disabled, he said.
The way forward is continued dialogue and cooperation between religions, the joint statement said.
But much work lies ahead, including getting Christian churches to agree on what constitutes an ethical way to evangelize, said the Rev. Hans Ucko, the WCC representative.
Concerns centered on "how can you make a Christian love not just his faith, but to also love his neighbor" and respect his or her identity and dignity, he said.
After all, he asked, what is more important: the message or the person hearing the message?
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