Worldwide, the right of an individual to convert to another religion is under assault in dangerous and unprecedented ways.
In India, Hindu nationalists accused Christians of forcing the rural poor to become Christians. Prime Minister Vajpayee, a moderate Hindu nationalist, called for public dialogue on religious conversion. Yet, instead of talking, Hindu fundamentalists are engaged in one of the worst outbreaks of violence against Christians in India's modern history (see "The Fiery Rise of Hindu Fundamentalism," p. 46).
But the issue of religious conversion is not confined to one region of the globe. In Israel, Jewish emigres who openly affirm Jesus as their Messiah are considered Christian converts and thereby may lose their citizenship rights, while ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists single out Messianic Jews for harassment and intimidation. In Egypt, a Muslim who accepts Christianity is prevented from legally changing his official identity papers. In Eastern Europe and Russia, Orthodox clergy frequently use their influence with local government officials to interfere with evangelistic outreach by Protestants. In Mexico City in January, Pope John Paul II, in a veiled reference to the rapid growth of charismatic and Protestant congregations, urged Catholics to confront "the challenge of the sects."
Meanwhile, in Chile, evangelicals are working for passage of a Worship Law that would remove preferences for the Roman Catholic church. But the measure would also grant Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses equal rights under Chilean law, causing some evangelicals to oppose it.
Evangelicals who embrace the right of an individual to religious conversion must resist any attempt to use government to give themselves special privileges. Whenever the right to religious conversion is in jeopardy, the truths of Christianity are at risk.
A right worth defending
The world's major religions all call for people to respond as individuals. Why then is the religious conversion of anyone so threatening to others? It is because religious conversion has public consequences, even though it is a personal act. History reveals that immigration and conquest greatly influence which religion is a majority within any one nation. Religious conversion also has awesome power to accelerate social and political change.
Religious conversion is potentially a threat to marriage and family tradition as well as to culture and government. Historically, new Christian converts who live in repressive societies have introduced equality, democracy, and modernization. When individuals at the lowest rung of society become Christians, they may shake the established order.
Most of the attempts at restricting religious conversion focus on unprincipled proselytism. Yet, fear of that prospect should not empower the state to regulate the spread of religious ideas or religious expression.
The attempt in India by Hindu extremists to link Christian charity work and care for the poor with inducement to religious conversion is based on false and perverse reasoning. Spreading the gospel and caring for the poor are specific mandates Jesus gave to his faithful followers. The enduring theme of the apostolic witness is a suffering church focused on persuading Jews, Greeks, and Romans that Christ died to save all people.
The right of an individual to convert to another religion must be considered a universal human right and should be vigorously defended by Christians and other religious leaders. No state, church, or institution should stand in the way of an individual's pursuit of religious truth.
Strong protections for the right to convert promise several things: that government will avoid attempts to manage religious expression; that differing religions operate on a level playing field, free of discrimination; and that an individual has not only the right, but also an opportunity to evaluate religious ideas openly and without harassment.
Truth at risk
Although government regulation of religion is one peril to be avoided, there is another equal danger. Unless the religious marketplace operates in a moral and just fashion, the resulting free-for-all will greatly harm individuals, families, and society. Christian mission organizations should have high standards for their overseas outreach operations to avoid the charge that they are buying converts, breaking local laws, undermining social order, or using political influence to gain an advantage.
Local church leaders should be encouraged to undertake the cause of evangelism as soon as they are capable. The gospel lived out in a local church congregation, in any culture, is a public witness to nonbelievers and persuasive evidence that Christianity is for one and all.
Many governments around the world, including communist China, have laws protecting the freedom of religious belief. But when such freedom means that Christians may not function outside their church walls or may not spread the Good News, the power of the gospel has unjustly been sanctioned.
The surest way to secure the right of an individual to religious conversion is to press for legislation guaranteeing the equality of all religions; and second, where possible, to require government neutrality on religious issues.
Johan Candelin, chairman of the Religious Liberty Commission, World Evangelical Fellowship, believes, "The best way to protect the right to convert is to build bridges of friendship and dialogue to leaders and national Christians." The power of personal relationship to improve the climate for religious freedom cannot be underestimated.
Freedom to believe without freedom to spread that belief is nothing but bondage.
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