(Article written in 2009)
Do religious conversions – especially the Missionary conversions to Christianity – affect nationally unity? Do the loyalties of a citizen really change after conversion to Christianity? These questions can be answered only through experience only.
When one looks at the first Christians who have entered India’s southern state of Kerala in 1st century AD, one finds it difficult to support this thesis. The traditional Christians of Kerala – the Syrian Christians, the Mar Thomites etc – have been like milk and sugar in our society. They produced some of the best Christian leaders in the country, both religious as well as secular.
However when we look at what happened to countries like Indonesia we find justification for this argument. The creation of East Timor as a separate nation was the New Millennium gift of the United Nations to the world. World thought that Pakistan and Israel will be the last countries to be carved out on the basis of religion.
In Israel’s case there was a justification. The Jews were the people thrown out of their lands by the invading Romans some 2000 years ago. They were a nation living in exile. After the II World War a home land was carved out for this ‘wandering nation’ and Israel came in to existence in April 1948 as the Father Land of Jews. In a way that was the last country to be created exclusively on religio-national grounds in the 20th Century.
A few months before that, another religio-national entity was created in the name of Pakistan in 1947 August. Unlike Israel, the creation of Pakistan was the greatest mischief of the Colonizers. While in Israel’s case a nation was re-inventing its Father Land, whereas in case of Pakistan, it was the creation of a religion-based national identity. The disastrous consequences of this experiment have convinced every political pundit in the world that Pakistan will be the last such misadventure for the mankind.
But they were shocked when they were told at the crack of the 21st Century dawn that the Christians of East Timor, a chain of tiny islands off Indonesian coast, are a separate nation and hence needed a separate country. People of East Timor have been living there for several centuries before Christianity came to their shores. Initially it was merely a change of religion. But eventually it turned out to be a change of national identity too. Creation of East Timor has brought back the fears of many nations that religion continues to act as a tool for imperialism.
Our experience in the North East too is not very different. A region that had such rich cultural integration with the rest of India that dates back to the times of Maha Bharata today spawns loads of anti-national and separatist movements. It is a well-known fact that secessionism in the North East is a gift of local missionaries. For decades, the Naga separatist movement was led by missionary leaders like Reverend Phizo. The Baptist Church was accused by the Marxist Chief Minister of Tripura Sri Manik Sarkar of being the main sponsor of separatist TNLF terrorism in that state. The nexus between the Church and separatists in the North East is an open secret.
However, whether it is East Timor or Nagaland, ethnic identities are always played up to justify the struggles. That East Timorians are ethnically different from the rest of the Indonesians and that Nagas are a different race become justification for the Church support for these movements.
This brings us to the crucial question that whether conversions can be questioned merely on religio-political experience. Because what they actually do is to snap the cultural identities first, thus making ethno-political identity paramount. Whether it is Pakistanis or East Timorians or various groups in the North East, what changed for them was the snapping of their cultural bond with the rest of the people. Once the cultural bond is destroyed no nation can protect its unity.
Religious conversions that affected cultural identity of peoples had dangerous consequences for nations. Very rarely that one would come across Kerala-type experiences. Experience elsewhere is just the opposite. Conversions world over meant not just change of religion, but change of culture too.
Today the South Korean Buddhists are up in arms against their Government for promoting Christianity aggressively because they find Christianity as destroying their homes and families. It may be remembered that more than 50% of nearly 5 crore South Koreans have ‘no religion’. Yet they are angry with Christianity which has a following of about 15% converts because the converted refuse to take part in even the ancient traditional family rituals for ancestral worship. They are angry not because their family members have changed religion. For, conversion meant much more than mere change of mode of worship. It cut at the root of their cultural identity. That is why 150,000 South Koreans took to streets last month protesting rising conversions and increasing influence of Christianity.
Whether it is the Buddhists of Malawi and South Korea, or the Muslims of Indonesia or Hindus of India and Nepal or the non-religious rulers of China – all have same concern, that conversions are much more than mere change of religion.
It is this growing opposition to conversion in various parts of the world, especially the eastern world that is forcing the Church leadership to sit up and change tactics. They increasingly talk about human rights, freedom of religion etc. They try to stress that the missionary activity of conversion is perfectly in line with the December 1948 charter of Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations, Article 18 of which declared freedom to ‘change’ and to ‘manifest’ one’s religion or belief in ‘teaching, practice, worship and observance’ as a universal fundamental right.
It may be noted that a major lobbying by the Church groups was responsible for inclusion of Right to Conversion as an individual right in the UN charter of Universal Human Rights. There was very little participation from the Eastern world in formulating this charter in 1948. What the Church actually wanted in the charter was much more than what they finally got. Western Christian leaders, who were actively involved in the drafting of the UN bill on Human Rights, came out with a statement on ‘Human Rights and Religious Freedom’ in March 1947 in which they wanted freedom to propagate and ‘persuade others’ to be a part of it.
This whole debate needs to be put on a different track altogether now. Confining issues relating to freedom of religion and conversion to the 1948 UN charter is no longer feasible. The social and cultural rights of communities have to be taken into account while deciding about the rights of individuals. This is necessary because there is a basic difference between the thought process of the East and the West. The West tends to be more individualistic whereas the eastern societies emphasise more on the collective rights of the people.
The following comments of Mahatma Gandhi during the run up to the UN charter reflect the thinking of the Indian and eastern civilizations.
“Begin with a Charter of Duties of Man… and I promise the Rights will follow as spring follows winter. I write from experience. As a young man I began life by seeking to assert my Rights and I soon discovered that I had none not even over my wife. So I began by discovering performing my duty by my wife, my children, friends, companions and society and I find today that I have greater Rights, perhaps than any living man I know”. (Richard L. Johnson, Gandhi’s Experiments with Truth)
There is a need for the Church leadership to think afresh on the issue of conversions, especially in the light of growing resentment among the non-Christian world. In fact it is necessary from the point of view of the internal discourse of the Church also. Inter-denominational conversion or proselytism has become a major irritant within Christianity too. In fact the previous Pope had described the Latin American evangelists as ‘rapacious beasts’ out to steal his flock.
More recently the Pope advised Catholic missionaries operating in the Orthodox Christian countries like erstwhile Soviet countries ‘not’ to be ‘aggressive’ in conversion activities. This stand was necessitated by the strong opposition of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Catholic expansionism. In fact when I met the Orthodox Church officials in Moscow they made it clear that even the Pope is not welcome to Russia since he brings with him the non-Orthodox version of Christianity.
All these irritants led the UN to declare an International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1966 in which it was clarified that: “No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice”.
Many countries including India have introduced religious freedom in their respective Constitutions in the light of the 1948 UN charter of Human Rights. Indian Constitution states in Art. 25 (1) that: “Subject to public order, morality and health and to the other provisions of this Part, all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”
However the experience made it clear that this provision needed more clarity, especially when the missionaries insisted on unhindered right to convert people. That is why the Supreme Court of India had to step in and make it clear in 1977 in the famous Rev. Stainslaws case that: ‘what is freedom for one is freedom for the other in equal measure. And then therefore there can be no such thing as a fundamental right to convert one person to one’s own religion’ and ‘… right to propagate one’s religion does not grant the right to convert another person to one’s own religion’.
The Church should call for a serious internal discourse on the question of conversion. Earlier discourses have lead to partial answers like inculturisation etc which do not really address the concerns of the opponents of conversion. What is needed is to dismantle the superstructure of evangelical establishment and confine Church activity to presenting God to the believers. Conversion may be restricted to bringing believers closer to God rather than ‘Harvesting Souls’.
Conversion militates against the core ethos of our nationhood as understood through the true meaning of Secularism i.e. Sarva Panth Samaadar – equal respect for all religions. Conversion implies superiority of certain religions over others. It is nothing but ‘Religious Imperialism’. Swami Vivekananda had ridiculed the Missionary claims of superiority while Mahatma Gandhi unequivocally declared that he would prohibit conversions if he had the power.
“Every nation considers its own faith to be as good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no need of conversion from one faith to another”. These words of Mahatma Gandi may sound harsh to many a missionary, but they are true.