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Mainstream, VOL LI, No 9, February 16, 2013

Freedom of Religion

Monday 18 February 2013, by Eduardo Faleiro


Religion has emerged as a major source of conflict in the post-Cold War era all across the globe. A perceptive writer points out that ideological strife has now given place to the “clash of civilisations” and predicts that in the foreseeable future, religion will be a major source of conflict within and among nations.

Samuel Huntington asserts that possibilities of conflict are greater in what he calls the “fault-lines of civilisation”, those areas such as India, where different cultures and religions do meet. Huntington also admits that such clashes can be prevented if appropriate strategies are formulated and implemented at an early stage so as to ensure religious harmony.

Some years ago, I decided to study the issues that affect inter religious peace and harmony in India. In this connection, I visited several of our States and held meetings with leaders and organisations of different religions.

Europe being the continent that pioneered the modern concept of secular democracy, I also attempted to study the subject with reference to some key European countries.

European countries can be classified broadly into three categories for the purpose of freedom of religion. In Russia and Greece, the Russian and Greek Orthodox Churches respectively are the “prevailing” religions. The two Constitutions provide for the right of all citizens to practise the faith of their choice. However, whilst the government generally respects this right, non-Orthodox groups face sometimes administrative obstacles or encounter restrictions on religious practice. Both the Constitutions prohibit proselytising and stipulate that the right of worship may not disturb public order or offend moral principles.

The second category consists of countries such as France, Belgium and Germany. The position in France is typical of this category of countries. The 1905 Law on Separation between Church and State makes it illegal to differentiate on the basis of faith. However, France pursues a restrictive legislation that stigmatises minority religions and associates them with dangerous “sects”. In June 1995, the French National Assembly established a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission, also known as the Gest or the Guyard Commission (after the names of its chairman and rapporteur respectively). The purpose of the Commission was to study the new religious groups appearing in France and labelled as “sects”. The Commission identified 172 groups as “sects”.

Several of them are Christian groups originating mainly from the United States but some are organisations closely related to the Indian cultural tradition such as ISKCON, Association of Shri Satya Saibaba, Brahmakumaris, Shri Ramakrishna Mission etc. The Justice Ministry issued a directive to all Government offices to be vigilant against possible abuses by “sects” and all government offices were instructed to monitor potentially abusive sect activities.

In Germany, freedom of worship and conscience is safeguarded as a fundamental right in the Constitution. The Federal Republic has no official faith or State church and the State is constitu-tionally obliged to maintain a position of neutrality in religious matters. However, following a visit to Germany in 1998, the United Nations Special Rapporteur issued a report in which he found that a climate of intolerance affected Mormons, Muslims, Scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baha’is and members of the Hare Krishna Movement. Charismatic Christians have also been targeted.

The Parliamentary Commission of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution in June 1999 giving priority to prevention of “dangerous sects”. However, the resolution states that a “major legislation in this direction is undesirable” and points out that any such legislation might interfere with the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights.

The French Law is the most sweeping law on religious minorities that is currently in vogue in Europe. It is feared that it may pave the way for religious intolerance in that country. The only redeeming feature is the widespread international condemnation which may reflect in the actual implementation of this law.

The third category of European countries includes Portugal, Spain and Italy. Generally speaking and with a few exceptions, religious freedom is being upheld in these three countries.

In Portugal, the Constitution provides for the freedom of religion and forbids discrimination on religious grounds. More than 80 per cent of the population identify themselves with the Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic Church receives some preferential treatment, for example, chief chaplaincies for the military, prisons and the hospitals remain State funded positions for Catholics only. The government takes active steps to promote interfaith understanding. The Municipal Corporation of Lisbon donated free of cost, land in prime locations for building a temple and a mosque.

Summing up, whilst there is a definite effort to accept multiculturalism and respect all religions in Europe, there is also, all across the continent, a perceptive growth of racism and xenophobia. The trend is largely due to the rapidly changing cultural and political landscape of Europe and increased emigration from non-European countries particularly North-Africa and Turkey.

The end of the Cold War, the reform of the welfare State and economic globalisation are transforming the European society and creating a climate of fear and uncertainty. Most Europeans want a solid and stable ground upon which to stand and this, they feel, can be provided by their traditional churches and religion as opposed to new churches and religions. Such a mindset, however, is a step backwards in the cause of religious freedom.

Religious nationalism in India is exacerbated by the memory of foreign domination for almost eight centuries. This animosity is further compounded by the proselytising missionaries. It is pointed out that conversions to Christianity take place almost exclusively among the weaker sections, tribals and other vulnerable sections and that missionaries take advantage of their educational, social and economic vulnerability.

Proselytism is opposed on several grounds; it attacks other religious beliefs and practices and asserts 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 seem second rate and shabby. In the tribal areas, Christian missionaries and Parivar activists confront each other over the issue of conversions.

The issue of conversion has become a major socio-religious and political issue. I witnessed this during my stay for a few days in the Mayurbhanj district of Orissa where Reverend Graham Staines and his two sons were killed. Over the last decades, there has been increasing competition between Christian and Hindu organisations for conversion and reconversion (gharvapsi) respectively and some tribal areas have been described as “battlegrounds for conversion”.

Organised attempts at mass conversion or reconversion, backed by financial or political power, can have an explosive backlash to the point of undermining public order. Most Christian theologians see both the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology and the Christian campaigns for evangelisation of India as having a fundamen-talist attitude and an aggressive methodology to achieve their respective goals.
Most Indian Christian theologians disapprove of organised conversions, favour inter-religious 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 spiritual insights.

During the fourth General Conference of Latin American bishops in the Dominican Republic, Pope John Paul II spoke of the Evangelical sects in Christianity and called them “rapacious wolves” devouring Latin American Catholics and “causing divisions and discord in our communities”. This was a key point in a speech to give direction to the Catholic Church in Latin America. John Paul II stressed the danger of underestimating “a certain strategy employing notable economic resources to crack the Catholic unity of Latin America”.

This line of reasoning also appears frequently in interviews with Latin American bishops: first, Latin Americans have a Catholic soul and a Catholic culture that binds them together; and second, some groups are spending a lot of money to attack the Catholic Church in Latin America. The concerns of the Pope regarding proselytism by the Evangelicals are similar to those voiced by the Orthodox and Protestant Churches against the Catholic missionaries as well as the concerns of the Muslims against Christian missionaries generally and of the Hindus against all the rest.

In June 1993, the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches at its meeting in Balamanand (Lebanon) produced a document known as the Balamanand Agreement which says that in order to legitimise its proselytising activities the Catholic Church developed a vision according to which she presented herself as the only one to whom salvation was entrusted. As a reaction, the Orthodox Church came to accept the same vision according to which only in her could salvation be found.

The statement says that proselytism very often resorts to “unacceptable means” and agrees that “there is no question of conversion of people from one church to another in order to achieve salvation”. It recalls that in this spirit, Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I together stated clearly “we reject every form of proselytism, every attitude which would be or could be perceived to be a lack of respect”.

The statement then proceeds to formulate Practical Rules to bring about the above mentioned respect between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches “and to put an end to everything that can foment division, contempt or hatred between the churches”. For this purpose, the Catholic Church proclaimed that “it no longer aims at proselytising among the orthodox. It aims at answering the spiritual needs of its own faithful and it has no desire for expansion at the expense of the Orthodox Church.”

The statement stresses that “religious freedom would be violated when under the cover of financial assistance, the faithful of one church would be attracted to other by promises, for example, of education and material benefits that may be lacking in their own church”. The statement recommends that differences between the two major Christian denominations should be resolved “through fraternal dialogue thus avoiding the recourse to the intervention of civil authorities for practical solution of problems that arise between the churches or local communities”. The statement excludes for the future “all proselytism and all desire for expansion by Catholics at the expense of the Orthodox Church”.

A similar 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. The document refers to “serious concerns about tension and conflicts created by proselytism in nearly all parts of the world”. It defines “proselytism” as “a conscious effort with intention to win members of another church”. The document mentions instances in the ‘developing world’ in which proselytism takes advantage of people’s misfortunes, for example, in situations of poverty in villages, to induce them to change their church 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 manipulate or 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 destabilise society”. Among the nature and characteristics of proselytism the document mentions “extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care or material inducement or using financial resources with the intent of making converts” and “manipulative attitudes 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 points out “whilst our focus in this document is on the relationship between Christians, it is important to seek the mutual application of these principles also in interfaith relations. Both Christians and communities of other faiths complain about unworthy and unacceptable methods of seeking converts from their respective communities. The 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.”

It appears that organised conversions in India are carried mainly at the behest of foreign missionary organisations and are stimulated by foreign funding. Over the centuries, many foreign missionaries have devoted their life for the welfare of the people of India as a whole and have been shining examples of moral rectitude. However, some others have been involved in conversions by unethical means.
During a visit to Jammu and Kashmir, I came across the following case. In April 2003 the parish priest of a church in Srinagar complained to the Bishop about the proselytising activities of a foreign missionary. He alleged that the missionary had converted about 200 Muslims, started two schools and a boarding where children of age 5 to 15 years, boys as well as girls, cohabited and were freely educated and fed by the missionary and that the latter was in the process of forming an unauthorised religious congregation with young girls including two Muslim girls.

The parish priest said that the missionary had created an impression that the church was using money power to win converts. As a result, the parish priest wrote: “The priests and nuns are looked with suspicion and our institutions are looked upon as factories of conversion and also labeled to be so. If we do not learn from history then it will repeat itself. Our churches were burnt twice.”
The bishop then issued instructions to the missionary to keep his activities limited to spiritual matters. Evangelisation work should be confined to the old converts and his conversion work should stop, he directed the missionary. Soon thereafter, the bishop received a letter from the Superior General of the concerned Missionary Society. This Society funds several projects of the church in Kashmir. In his letter, the Superior General requested the bishop to withdraw his directives to the missionary and added: “We strongly believe in the special charism of evangelism of our society which the aforesaid missionary puts in practice in Srinagar in spite of lack of appreciation and cooperation from the local clergy.” The letter speaks glowingly of the “sterling evangelising work of the missionary” and requests that he be promoted in recognition of his activities.

Whilst concluding, the following are some suggestions:

• Organised drives for conversion and recon-version should stop. They violate the Constitution of India. The government should, in the first instance, promote with determination an agreement among the religious heads of all the major faiths in the country to stop proselytism. Given the positive mindset of Indian theologians this is very much possible.

• Formulate a national policy and an action plan to combat religious intolerance, including proselytism, and create an independent national institution for this purpose or strengthen any such existing institutions.

• Ensure that adequate training and awareness programmes about religion and religious harmony are formulated for young leaders at all levels and government officials, judges, teachers and social workers.

• Assure all victims of religious intolerance adequate support and speedy administrative and judicial remedies.

• Combat all forms of expression which incite sectarian hatred and take action against dissemination of such material in the media including the Internet.

• Counter social exclusion and marginalisation in particular by providing adequate access to all citizens in education, health and employment.

• Address specifically the need for development of vulnerable groups such as tribals and other weaker sections and those who suffer discrimi-nation on different grounds.

The author is a former Union Minister.

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