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'Many feel conversion is not the church's business'

Swedish theologian Hans Ucko
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December 13, 2007

The World of Council of Churches, a liberal Christian organisation that has in recent decades opposed wars particularly, in South Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, is one of the most influential church organisations in the world.
Recently it led a conference held in Toulouse, France [Images], which, with Roman Catholics and many branches of Protestant groups, discussed the issues related to conversion and service.

Hans Ucko, a Swedish theologian who heads the WCC's program for inter-religious dialogue, has always believed conversion has a place in society. But he is also among many Christian leaders who look at conversion through critical eyes. He spoke to rediff India Abroad Managing Editor (Features) Arthur J Pais.

The World Council of Churches has been looking at the issue of conversions for quite some time and you have looked at the issue of conversions in India. Share your thoughts with us on the issue.

I am a convert. I grew up in a non-religious Jewish family in a university town called Lund in Sweden. I grew up without a religion but embraced Christianity in my twenties. But I have never been interested in converting people. I believe it is more important for us to bear witness to Christ by our action of caring for people without any ulterior motives and by our exemplary living.

Conversion is sought by some people in my faith but it is also feared by some. To be able to convert someone is high up on the priority list for some; for others, say, a Hindu, it is a day of grief when someone converts. People may start wondering why a family member is changing religions. They wonder if they did something wrong to make a son or a daughter change the religion.

Even in the case of someone who is changing the religion due to deep conviction, there will be some grief and confusion. I am not saying there should not be conversions. But we ought to keep in mind the consequences.

Those who want others to convert will also not easily stomach when anyone leaves their faith for another faith.
The World Council of Churches maintains that conversion has become a threat and tension for religious diversity and harmony. We need to understand that conversions take place in different socio-economic-political contexts for different reasons. It can happen due to dissatisfaction with one's religion, life-changing experiences, but also through the use of force and aggression� While some conversions may be genuine and spiritual, some others may not.

There are also Christian theologians who feel the conversion of others is not any more the business of the church, given the history of forced baptism and mission enterprises in the accounts of colonial and other subjugations of people of other faiths. They are seeking to formulate the mission of the church not in seeking converts but in converting our world to become a world, where justice reigns and human dignity is a commandment.

They prefer talking about Missio Dei, the mission of God, to which the church as well as people of other religious traditions may be called to participate.

Those who rightly quote the right to change religion and the right to persuade others to change often forget that the United Nations declarations also talk about the right to maintain one's religion or belief: No one shall be coerced to change his or her religion or belief. The right to religious freedom is actually limited by other human rights. In addition, one person's religious freedom may be limited by the religious freedom of another. Thus one interesting field for exploration is the interaction between the freedom to propagate religion on the one hand and the freedom to practice one's religion without interference on the other.

What is the key issue that haunts people opposed to conversion?

I call it an issue of aid-evangelism. It is a recurrent theme. The relief work following the earthquake in Gujarat led to suspicions that Christians and Muslims got less help than Hindus. The relief work carried out by some missionaries in India and elsewhere in Asia got a bad name because the relief workers were also looking for converts.

At the Millennium Peace Conference in August 2000 in New York, I was part of a small group addressing the particular issue of conversion in India. We agreed upon an 'Informal Working Understanding � Freedom from Coercion in Religion.' And we agreed that the free and generous preaching of the Christian Gospel is welcome in India. But we also condemned proselytism; we particularly rejected the exploitation of the issue of poverty in religious outreach and missionary work.

While we agreed that giving of aid to those in need is a primary commandment of all our religious and spiritual traditions, we also resolved that this act of justice should never be tied to compulsory conversion. We have committed ourselves to a continuing dialogue in the spirit of inter-religious harmony, mutual respect, and the cooperative common effort to build a better world.

In this way, we will discover trust in one another [and ensure] that any altruistic work will not be a means for conversion.

Twelve years ago you were one of the prominent Christians involved in a workshop on Hindu-Christian relations held in Madurai. The discussions are still reverberating.

I would like to highlight one part of the document:  On the issue of conversion, the document stated that any 'form of manipulation or enticement to win over others to one's own faith community is immoral and irreligious. So also to use religion to gain economic political or any other form of favour and advantage is equally immoral and irreligious.'

The document, although more than 10 years old, would merit another reading and seen as a basis for an ongoing conversation, not only because it is a good piece of work but because it is the situation in India especially in states such as Gujarat that in many way have sparked off the many-faceted WCC interest in this issue.

The Indian theologian M M Thomas said once that a convert to Christianity should remain in solidarity with his original community. But more often the convert learned consciously or unconsciously to denigrate the faith or religion of origin or to allow a polarisation between the religion one had left and the religion one had entered.

What else is worrying Indian churches apart from the sporadic attacks on them by Hindu religious groups?

Many churches in India were worried by the attempts to legislate against conversion. They felt themselves to be the victims of what para-church groups, often with foreign funds, were involved in. Their evangelisation campaigns and crusades antagonised many Hindus, who either did not want to or could not distinguish which church proselytised and which church abstained from aggressive evangelism. Some churches are afraid the schools, orphanages and hospitals they run could be considered instruments for conversion and banned by law.

But I also believe the mass-conversions of Dalits were not necessarily the direct act of evangelism. Dalits were from the beginning not targeted objectives for conversion. The mission of the church focused historically on individuals, on high-caste Hindus. Dalits came by themselves and understood conversion as their leader [Dr Bhim Rao] Ambedkar understood it -- a movement towards social acceptance. Their conversions rock the boat and challenge the community and the society.

What kind of distinction is there between what is called 'bearing Christian witness' and improper proselytism?

The former is rather called true witness or true evangelism, which a report drawn up in 1956 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches describes as an essential mission and a responsibility of every Christian and every church. That means doing service and even offering knowledge of Christ. Improper proselytism represents a corruption or deformation of true witness. Improper proselytism may, according to the same report, take the form of activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a church or exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need; it may even entail the use of violence or brainwashing; more generally, it is not compatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others.

Bearing witness to Christ means Christians always respects the freedom of those to whom it is addressed; it never exploits their weakness or their poverty; it never offers material or social benefits resulting from a change of confession; it excludes all methods of compulsion, including the uncritical use of mass media. In our churches, we stress that Christians bearing witness to their faith do not denigrate the faith of others. Witnessing Christians do not spread prejudices about other Christians. They do not distort their own spiritual convictions to attract others.

Can one be a convert without endorsing conversion?

I would like to paraphrase a Swedish stand-up comedian, who said about the prayer, 'And lead us not into temptation�,' 'thank you very much, you don't have to lead me, I can very well walk myself into temptation.' Applying it to conversion, I don't think I need to be converted by someone, I can convert myself. In fact, I did so over 30 years ago.

The problem with conversion is the arrogance of those who think they have a right to convert others and particularly so when they refer to UN declarations as a support. Claiming the right to seek out the other for conversion is nothing else but turning the other into an object for my design. It is meeting the other as an object, not interested in the encounter and where it might take us.

There will always be people who, for various reasons, will want to break out and look for other pastures. One cannot erect walls high enough to prevent them from leaving. The wall isn't built that will hinder their flight. It is better to let them leave without clipping their wings. We live in a world where encounters and dialogues will lead some to seek other ways than the ones just travelled. This is the right that UN declarations talk about and this is the right of and in each of our religious traditions.

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