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Legislation Driven by Conversion Phobia

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Professor Asoka Ekanayaka, Peradeniya

Watching the film of Victor Hugo's book 'Les Miserable' on TV a few days ago, I was reminded of one of the most moving and inspiring encounters ever described. It is the moment when Monseigneur Bienvenu the saintly Christian Bishop saves Jean Valjean from being returned to the galleys by telling the police that the silver plates stolen from him by the dissolute fugitive were a gift, and giving him the silver candlesticks as well. With the words "Jean Valjean, my brother, you belong no longer to evil but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I with-draw it from dark thoughts and the spirit of perdition, and I give. it to God!" Monseigneur Bienvenu launches the conversion of Jean Valjean. It is a dispiriting thought that in terms of the narrow unenlightened degeneracy of Sinhala Buddhist extremism that is relentlessly driving the thrust for anti conversion legislation, in Sri Lanka the worthy Bishop would have been accused of unethical conversions. According to the government's proposed bill he would be liable to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of Rs. 100,000 as extremists take satisfaction in the thought that the interests of Buddhism have been served.

However to a non Buddhist, one of the sad things about the current phobia about Christian conversions which underlies the aggressive drive for anti conversion legislation is that it seems to be the very antithesis of Buddhism. The appearance of insecurity, fear, resentment, and restlessness associated with the frenetic craving for anti conversion laws, seems so much at variance with the attitude of patience, kindness, detachment, equanimity, and renunciation that is at the core of Buddhism. If I am mistaken in this (and hopefully not), then Buddhism is a more militant philosophy than I had imagined. Amidst the upsurge of violent attacks on Christians in many parts of the country in recent times one would have expected that by now any concerns about unethical conversions would have quickly given way to widespread moral outrage and indignation at such inhumanity. Far from it - but then history records that religions have been most discredited by those who were its most zealous defenders, encouraged by the seeming acquiescence of the silent majority.

There have been over 100 attacks against Christians since March 2002, and 20 of these took place in the first 18 days of 2004 . Such violations have included beatings, arson, acts of sacrilege, death threats, violent disruption of worship, stoning, abuse, unlawful restraint, and even interference with funerals, amongst other acts of thuggery against peaceful Sri Lankan Christians.

Reportedly 146 places of Christian worship have been forced to close down within a space of four months. To say in response that Christians are only getting what they deserve for indulging in unethical conversions that must forthwith be halted by passing legislation - is of course the worst form of victim blaming.

Against this background there is a need to clear the mists of emotion, prejudice, and ignorance that underlie the prevailing obsessions about Christian conversions, and move towards a mature understanding of the relevant issues.

Constitutional Guarantees and Human Rights

The right to actively practice and propagate the Christian religion are guaranteed by articles 10 and 14(1e) of the constitution of Sri Lanka. In particular article 14(1e) gives Christians the constitutional entitlement to manifest their religion in "worship, observance, practice" and most significantly "teaching". Given that "teaching" can have many different modalities, for example teaching by example, teaching through preaching, teaching through the distribution of printed material and teaching through intellectual persuasion, it follows that the constitution allows Christians the right to peacefully use such means for the propagation of the Faith to non-Christians. Such constitutional provision closely follows the right to manifest ones religion or belief in "teaching, practice, worship and observance" as contained in Article 18 of the Universal declaration of human rights.

The fundamental rights guaranteed by article 14(le) of the constitution are in no way weakened by the provisions of article 9 for the protection of Buddhism as article 9 makes it clear that its provisions are conditional on the rights guaranteed under articles 10 and 14(1e) remaining intact. Finally nowhere in the constitution is it stated or implied that the "freedom of religion ... including the freedom to adopt a religion or belief" of an individual is imperilled by the peaceful overtures of another individual who seeks to convert him/her to another religion.

Over and above the right to "teach", the constitutional guarantees in article 14(1e) provide for Christians to "practice" Christianity. It follows that Christians are entitled to "practice" Christianity in terms of what the practice of Christianity entails. So the question is what does the practice of Christianity entail?

Peaceful Propagation of the Faith - An Inescapable Christian Imperative

The practice of Christianity entails faith in God who as Christians believe, has historically revealed himself in the humanity of Jesus Christ in order to save mankind from the stranglehold of sin. Such faith places upon the Church the inescapable obligation to introduce all men everywhere to the love of God in Jesus Christ. Christians are in the position of people who have come into possession of some wonderful good news - news that is literally life giving which they are bound to share with others in a spirit of love and goodwill. It is a compulsive labour of love unequivocally commissioned by Christ himself. The Church has been faithful to this commission throughout history in the face of all odds, even martyrdom. The impulse to engage in Christian conversion is fundamental to the practice of Christianity and cannot be denied in any rational interpretation of the Constitution which guarantees the right to practice Christianity.

Therefore, the judgment of any Court which holds that the propagation of Christianity would not be permissible because it would impair the very existence of Buddhism is at variance with the Constitution, because the Constitution guarantees the right to "practice" Christianity where the peaceful propagation of Christianity is an inextricable part of the "practice" of Christianity!

"Unethical Conversions" a Contradiction in Terms

Central to the controversy is accusations of so called "unethical conversions". However on closer examination the very concept of "unethical conversions" is meaningless. Conversion denotes a true change of heart, nothing less. Therefore a so called ‘unethical' conversion is no conversion. The so called "conversion" of a person supposed to have been purchased with some material inducement is pure pretence. It is not a valid conversion. The entire concept of "unethical conversions" is a contradiction in terms. As for genuine conversions it is the work of God not man. The worldwide Church is bound to relentlessly teach and preach the Gospel. But God converts the heart at his will and pleasure. Consequently the notion that conversions to Christianity can be suppressed through legislation or other restraints is spurious. Man may contend with man - but in the final analysis no man can prevail against God. That is the definitive Christian position.

The Hidden Agenda

It is possible that underlying the current aggravation about "unethical conversions" is a general hostility to Christian conversions altogether, ethical or unethical. This is not surprising considering that many genuine conversions to Christianity might indeed have taken place in recent times. Such trends are predictable. That ordinary simple people, harassed, confused and burdened by the manifold vicissitudes of an uncertain life in these turbulent times should find solace through Faith in a loving God - should surprise no one. Moreover it has to be admitted that the disillusionment created by the seeming corruption and distortion of Buddhism in Sri Lanka today - may be a further factor causing people to drift away at this time. Rather than make a scapegoat of Christians it may be more expedient for the Buddhist establishment to put its own house in order.

Historic Christian Commitment to Social Justice

It is a common complaint that Christian conversions are secured through material inducements to the socially deprived. Such criticisms reflect an ignorance of the essential nature of Christian mission throughout history. That mission has been marked by a historic tradition of caring concern for the material needs of the poor and destitute within a fundamental commitment to social justice which is as old as Christianity itself.

Jesus himself was born in poverty. He lived in poverty, and was tortured and killed by those with wealth and power. Consequently from the earliest times the exertions of Christians as they preached and taught the Christian faith (invariably leading to conversions) have been inextricably associated with practical action to alleviate poverty. In the long meritorious history of Christian mission worldwide Christians have founded schools, hospitals and refuges for the outcast. They abolished slavery and improved the conditions of workers in mills, mines, and of prisoners in jail. They have fought against the commercial exploitation of children in the factories of the West and ritual prostitution in the temples of the East. They have cared for the blind, the deaf, the orphaned, the widowed, the sick, the lepers, and the dying. They have befriended drug addicts and held their hand through the agonies of withdrawal. They have opposed racism and political oppression and agitated for social justice in the inner city, the slums, and the ghettos.

A social conscience in the Christian perspective is everywhere the inescapable dictate of love. The answer to critics who complain that Christian social action leads to Christian conversions is that it cannot be helped. In this situation it is only natural that people who convert should be as touched by the life and example of Christians who attend to their dire material needs as impressed by the force of the gospel of salvation which they preach. Christian service and Christian preaching are two sides of the same coin. They cannot be disengaged. It is a wicked distortion to interpret such activities as a form of bribery.

Hostility to Modes and Styles of Christian Evangelism

A further cause of aggravation is the hostility towards the reportedly aggressive and seemingly tactless manner in which some pastors are accused of spreading the Christian faith especially amongst the poor, amidst questions about their real motives for charitable work.

Anecdotal allegations of "conversions" secured through artless material inducements if not outright bribery, tend to evoke strong resentment especially when such stories are embellished with accusations that mercenary NGO's with access to liberal foreign funding are behind such activities. Such emotive accusations have the potential to dangerously inflame public opinion.

In the best traditions of evangelism the propagation of Christianity is something that ought to be motivated by compassionate selfless zeal for the spiritual health of people and their immediate material needs. It is never driven by mercenary aims or worldly ambition. It is neither triumphalist, nor coercive nor manipulative. It involves intellectual persuasion through the formation of relationships, dialogue, discussion and teaching. Above all Christians are required draw people to God by the quality of their own life and example in the world, to be a shining light of integrity so that people will be so moved by their purity and goodness as to be drawn to their Faith.

The extent to which pastors have deviated from this ideal standard in Sri Lanka has never been objectively documented. The current public agitation about Christian conversions is frequently a response to anecdotal reports that are capable of variable interpretation. There is no reliable quantitative evidence to suggest that such activities are sufficiently widespread as to constitute a public nuisance. Therefore it is possible that reports of aggressive provocative Christian evangelism are biased and grossly exaggerated if not palpably false, especially when they originate from sources who would like to magnify isolated incidents and stir up public discord with the intention of putting an end to any kind of Christian propagation. The current morbid obsession with "unethical conversions" in Sri Lanka does not stand on a foundation of detached objective investigation and evidence. It is unthinkable that legislation should be contemplated against a presumed vice whose true social distribution is only a matter of hearsay.

All allegations of Christian workers using improper means to propagate their faith remain unproven until they arc corroborated through fair and independent inquiry. What if the only fault was an impassioned, perhaps overbearing style of communication which might at times have lacked tact?

It is irrational to castigate as crimes what may only be the indiscretions of people whose zeal has exceeded their prudence.

However there is a more fundamental issue. In a selfish world of pervasive social degradation and inequality, does it really matter who helps the poor? Who cares about the motives of benefactors, or the source of their funds whether local or foreign? It is easy to engage in pharisaic nit-picking from the comfortable security of guaranteed monastic lifetime subsistence. It is more humane for a secular society to take the pragmatic view that in the absence of criminal intent any person or organization is welcome to relieve the economic distress of the indigent in whatever manner possible, whatever their motives.

It would of course be a great mistake to exaggerate the naivety of ordinary people in Sri Lanka. In a highly literate society most people are capable of reasonable discrimination on matters of faith. Should anyone be so foolish as to crudely solicit their conversion in return for material favours, many would be sagacious enough to take what is given and feign a spurious change of belief - hardly a valid conversion! Emotive reference to "forced" conversions in Sri Lanka with the subtle connotation of violence implied by the word is a mischievous distortion.

Christian Conversions and the Proliferation of Christian Sects

Current reaction to Christian conversions is associated with antagonism towards the small indigenous non-formal churches and loosely organised groups of Christian workers who are blamed for many conversions. A spurious distinction is often made between the established mainline organisations like the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches, and the numerous smaller Christian denominations (some of them no more than informal aggregations of domestic worshippers), that operate peacefully in many parts of the country. Despite the aberration of some recent attacks on Roman Catholic churches, on the whole the former are accepted as legitimate. The latter tend to be spurned as unauthorised sects intent on proselytising.

To discriminate between different Christian groups in Sri Lanka in that manner reflects a complete ignorance of the essential character of the Christian Church and contemporary trends in the growth of Christianity worldwide. Every Christian knows that in the Final Judgment the Pope will enjoy no advantage over the itinerant preacher!

While legal registration by Act of Parliament has been customary especially for the older and more established denominations, nevertheless the validity of a "Church" does not depend on such State recognition.

Rather for Christians the "Church" simply denotes "the people of God" - even if that literally means a gathering of two or three Christians with a common commitment to practice Christianity and tell others about it. By this definition any group of people actively involved in Christian teaching and community service would have natural legitimacy irrespective of whether or not they functioned under the label of a mainline Church. Some of the Christian workers who are resented for inducing conversions to Christianity belong to this category. They have as much right to exist and practice Christianity (which includes its peaceful propagation), as any of the larger Churches. State registration is not a sine qua non for the collective practice of Christianity.

Even so, it is a little known fact that many of the so called 'smaller' Christian sects have indeed been formally incorporated by Act of Parliament several decades ago and have the same legal status as the larger denominations. They cannot now be arbitrarily disregarded simply because people have converted to Christianity through their labours.

The proliferation of indigenous independent Christian sects is neither new nor peculiar to Sri Lanka. It has been a respectable global phenomenon for many years, with Christians seeking a deeper spiritual experience beyond the drab conservatism of institutional religion. The House Church Christian movement in China for example has flourished despite Communist repression with 75-100 million Christians meeting in their homes and an estimated 12 million conversions yearly. Such trends are the expression of an authentic global charismatic Christian revival.

The Futility of Anti Conversion Laws

What has been said so far underlines the absence of any rational basis for anti conversion legislation in Sri Lanka. Such legislation is basically unjust because the propagation of Asian religions is permitted without any legal restrictions in the Western democracies notwithstanding the historical dominance of Christianity. Even worse such legislation would be inflammatory for while ostensibly targeting "unethical" conversions it will be seized upon by unscrupulous extremists to harass and bully a religious minority. Anti conversion laws at this time will severely undermine the current peace process because legal restrictions will be perceived internationally as narrow minded, and retrogressive, and a concession to extremists.

It will make minorities nervous as it signifies weak governance that in the final analysis can be coerced and manipulated by a chauvinistic Sinhala Buddhist majority.

More importantly anti religious conversion legislation would be an exercise in hypocrisy amidst the slander, false promises and monumental deceit through which "unethical conversions" are constantly secured in other innumerable areas of human belief, where the promulgation of preventive legislation would be cumbersome and unrealistic. "Unethical conversions" if they take place at all may be undesirable - but in a mature society it is futile and hypocritical to legislate against such practices, provided the methods used are peaceful.

The reality is that religious faith is one dimension of human ideology amongst many -political, economic, scientific, social and moral. In a democracy all such beliefs including religious beliefs are a freely marketable commodity. In the free market of human ideology those that are more convincing, stand the test of time in the furnace of human experience, and are of greater immediate value in coping with the problems of life will inevitably win the day and attract more converts. Religion is no exception. It goes against the norms of a civilised society to promulgate protectionist legislation (to artificially prop up fixed religious ratios) thereby hindering the unfettered conversion of human belief by any means provided they are peaceful.

In the final analysis what stands out is the sheer futility of anti conversion legislation and history's testimony to its counter productivity. Anti conversion laws are after all as old as Christianity itself. It is recorded that when St. Peter and St John were arraigned before court 2000 years ago, and ordered to stop propagating the Faith they replied "Is it right in God's eyes for us to obey you rather than God? We cannot possibly give up speaking of things we have seen and heard". And thus it has been in every age.

However the Church which began with hardly a dozen men against the might of the Roman Empire has since expanded to every corner of the earth. The ultimate irony of anti conversion laws is that spurred by oppression and martyrdom Christianity throughout human history has grown and flourished ever more strongly even as Christians have been forced to choose between obedience to God and loyalty to the State. Those who resent the tide of Christian conversions would be foolish to ignore the testimony of history that passing anti conversion laws, is the surest way to accelerate the spread of Christianity.

From The Island 5th and 6th July 2004


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