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 CNS Story:


Christian leaders issue recommendations for evangelizing

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- The Vatican and other Christian representatives have issued a series of recommendations for evangelization in multifaith societies, rejecting aggressive or coercive methods but defending the right to profess, propagate or change one's religion.

The principles were outlined June 28 in a document titled, "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct," issued jointly by the Pontifical Council for the Interreligious Dialogue, the World Council of Churches and the World Evangelical Alliance.

"Christian witness in a pluralistic world includes engaging in dialogue with people of different religions and cultures," the document said. It added that while every Christian has the duty to witness to Christ, "conversion is ultimately the work of the Holy Spirit."

"If Christians engage in inappropriate methods of exercising mission by resorting to deception and coercive means, they betray the Gospel and may cause suffering to others," it said.

The document was the product of five years of consultations by some 40 experts in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, the head of the Vatican's interreligious council, said defining the principles was "not easy" but that the final text was important and should now be studied by Christian communities around the world.

"It's very important that religions, especially Christianity, appear not as a source of division but a source of solidarity and communion," he told Vatican Radio. An essential point, he said, was that witnessing the Gospel cannot be an "aggressive campaign."

The document strongly emphasized that exploitation of situations of poverty and need has no place in Christian outreach.

While education, health care, relief services and advocacy of justice are an integral part of witnessing to the Gospel, it said that "Christians should denounce and refrain from offering all forms of allurements, including financial incentives and rewards, in their acts of service."

Among the document's 12 major principles for evangelizing were the following points:

-- In all aspects of life and witness, Christians are called to follow the example and teachings of Jesus Christ.

-- Christians are called to conduct themselves with integrity, charity, compassion and humility and to "overcome all arrogance, condescension and disparagement."

-- Christian healing ministries should be carried out with discernment, "ensuring that the vulnerability of people and their need for healing are not exploited."

-- Christians are called on to reject all forms of violence or the abuse of power in their witness. They should also reject any form of violence or discrimination by any religious or secular authority.

-- Religious freedom is an essential human freedom and includes the right to "publicly profess, practice, propagate and change one's religion." Where religious persecution occurs, Christians are called to engage in prophetic witness denouncing such actions.

-- Changing one's religion is a decisive step that requires sufficient time for reflection and preparation.

-- Christians should be careful to acknowledge what is good in other beliefs and not to "bear false witness concerning other religions."

The drafters of the document said the text should now be studied by churches, national and regional church structures and mission organizations, especially those working in interreligious contexts.

They said those organizations should encourage Christians to strengthen their own identity but avoid misrepresenting the beliefs and practices of people of different faiths and should call on governments to ensure that freedom of religion is respected.

Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, was a participant in the consultations.

In their histories with one another, the three Christian groups issuing the guidelines have had instances of denying each other's religious freedom or using coercion, he said, but their ecumenical dialogue over the past 50 years has "allowed us to look at mission work with fresh eyes."

Additionally, he said, Christians' experience of limited religious freedom in some parts of the world today also prompted renewed reflections on the essential need for full respect of an individual's conscience and freedom to express his or her faith.

Respect and proclamation "are not mutually exclusive. One can be committed to the proclamation of Jesus Christ and also committed to respectful dialogue," he said.

The "core principle" in the new guidelines, Father Massa said, is that "it is the nature of faith that it be a free response" to God's call. "A coerced faith is not faith," he said.


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