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Religious Conversion

Ecumenical efforts toward an interreligious issue:
from controversy to a shared code of conduct on religious conversion

At the World Council of Churches

The study

shoes at doorway smallThe Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the WCC's Office on Interreligious  Relations and Dialogue initiated a three-year study on the controversial issue of religious conversion in 2006. They wanted to address (1) religious conversion and changes of religious affiliation from a Christian perspective and (2) the establishment, in cooperation with people of other faiths, of a code of conduct on religious conversion. In August 2007, after an intra-Christian consultation, the World Evangelical Alliance joined the process.

"It is of particular urgency that mission be understood and practiced in a way which does not lead to an increase of hatred and violence," WCC general secretary Samuel Kobia said in April 2007. "That's one of the reasons we are involved with the Roman Catholic, Evangelical, and Pentecostal churches in searching for a code of conduct on conversion."

A code of conduct on conversion is not expected to have formal authority in any of the Christian communities who are participating. Nonetheless, planners hope that it can provide guidance and a kind of "peer pressure" which advances the cause of religious freedom. They would like a "code" that can be used in conversations with governments considering anti-conversion laws, address other religions’ concerns about Christian proselytism, and inspire other religious communities to consider their own codes of conduct. It also needs to help ease tensions within the Christian community itself. As the WCC's Hans Ucko has said, "In Latin America [this issue] is a source of tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement, while in other regions Orthodox churches often feel 'targeted' by some Protestant missionary groups."

Stage One: Interfaith consultation

A May 2006 meeting meeting of a multireligious group of 27 persons affirmed freedom of religion as a "non-negotiable" human right valid for everyone everywhere and at the same time called attention to an "obsession of converting others." The meeting's reflections and recommendations include:

  • “Freedom of religion is a fundamental, inviolable and non-negotiable right of every human being in every country in the world.” This means freedom to practice one’s own faith, to propagate the teachings of a faith to its own and other people, and to embrace another faith by free choice.
  • While people have a right to invite others to their faith, this should not violate others’ rights or religious sensibilities. There should be “transparency in the practice of inviting others to one’s faith.”
  • No faith organization should take advantage of vulnerable sections of society. Humanitarian work should be carried out with no ulterior motives and, in time of need, “what we can do together, we should not do separately.”
  • “Members of each faith should listen to how people of other faiths perceive them.”
  • "Errors have been perpetrated and injustice committed by the adherents of every faith." Self-criticism and repentance should lead each to necessary reforms.

Since the May 2006 meeting on conversion, a WCC-initiated interfaith think tank known by the title "Thinking Together" has looked at the subject twice, the second meeting being on June 16-20, 2007. The group examined "the struggle between religious freedom and respect for religious plurality," as well as assessing the role of converts. As a starting point for their June discussions, a Buddhist, a Christian, and a Hindu scholar prepared drafts in keeping with the group's goals that, in addition to the conversion work, focus on communicating faith without setting up a truth claim and reflecting on human rights.

Stage Two: intra-Christian consultation

On August 8-12, 2007, some thirty persons from the WCC constituency, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals, and Evangelicals consulted together in Toulouse, France about an ethical approach to conversion, taking a self-critical appraisal and asking what a common code of conduct about conversion might look like from a Christian perspective. The WCC press report on the meeting lists some of the issues identified by the participants as elements upon which a code of conduct should be based:

  • common understandings of conversion, witness, mission and evangelism, and concern for human dignity
  • a distinction between aggressive proselytizing and evangelism
  • the balance between the mandate to evangelize and the right to choose one’s religion

A member of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) religious liberty commission, Thomas Schirrmacher of Germany (pictured) read one of the papers at the Toulouse meeting. He reported that the WEA was ready to support a code of conduct on conversion. Evangelical and ecumenical Christians have never been as close on this previously, he says. Shirrmacher is director and president of the International Institute for Religious Freedom run on behalf of the WEA by the German Evangelical Alliance.

Read a blog report on the consultation posted by Jane Stranz, a British United Reformed Church minister. Listen to Hans Ucko of the WCC speaking to NPR radio about the consultation and its goals.

Next stage: preparing a document draft

A meeting in 2008 will draft a code of conduct document, building on the findings of the earlier consultations.

The WCC stance on proselytism

The WCC has among its documents Towards Common Witness: A call to adopt responsible relationships and to renounce proselytism,” adopted by the central committee of the World Council of Churches Central Committee in 1997 tot address the issue of proselytism among the churches. Interfaith discussions have pointed to this document as a good basis to begin thinking about the ethics of relationships with those outside the community of the Christian Church. (See especially section III.) For a look at the Christian-Muslim discussions convened by the WCC that have examined the question of proselytism, see the chapter by Margaret O. Thomas in Christianity and Human Rights..

In Asia and elsewhere

Hindu objections to missionary methods

"Proselytization and Religious Freedom" is a 17-minute video used in a panel presentation at the conference, "World's Religions After September 11," held in Montreal on September 15, 2006. The well-organized video uses clips from other audiovisuals to present Hindu objections to the tactics of some Christian missionaries. It concludes by suggesting an ethic for conversion that rejects various methods viewed as manipulative in order to leave room for conversions that are truly spiritual. Play the video from the Hinduism Today web site, allowing considerable time for it to download.

Indian bans on conversion

In August 2007, amidst various conflicts, the state government of Gujarat said it would implement a dormant anti-conversion law passed in 2003.  The government says this will promote national and societal interest but Christians fear it will encourage bigotry and hate campaigns. In February the governor of Himachal Pradesh ratified a law punishing those who convert others by "fraudulent means." The punishment is doubled if the convert is a Dalit, a member of a tribal community, or a minor. Further, those who want to change their faith must give 30 days notice to their district authorities or they will be punished. Christians, Dalits, and mass movement organizations have decided to take the matter to India's Supreme Court. Tamil Nadu has already revoked its anti-conversion law and some other states have not provided sanctions for those who violate similar laws. News of a papal statement condemning Indian bans on conversion highlights the problem, which extends across several religious traditions.

Hans Ucko of the office on Inter-Religious Affairs and Dialogue of the World Council of Churches (pictured in Madurai, India) spoke to an Indian newspaper, the Deccan Herald, in the fall of 2006, when he gave the Samartha Memorial Lecture in Bangalore on “Towards an ethical code of conduct for religious conversions.” Ucko said he looks upon "any targeting of others as a disrespectful act. It objectifies the other, reducing him or her to be only a receiver of what I have to say or communicate." He went on to say that "any talk which reduces the other to be only on the receiving end . . . is doomed to be misunderstood." But Ucko did not endorse use of legislation to ban "proselytism."

Indian Christian statement against "aggressive faith marketing"

A group of Indian Christians, members of the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD), mounted an Indian petition campaign for an amendment to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on the right to change one's religion. The proposed amendment would add to the article the words, "no individual or organization may seek to convert an individual or group of individuals, including minors or individuals of limited cognitive abilities, formally or informally, from one religion to another by offering financial or other material incentives, through physical, mental, or emotional coercion, or through threats or intimidation of any kind." Some of  the signatories say they "freely chose to embrace" the Christian faith. The petition states belief in the Great Commission that "unequivocally calls us to witness to Christ in a pluralistic setting."

Special discrimination against Indian Christian and Muslims Dalits

A large proportion of the Christian community in India has come to Christianity out of a Dalit background, from the lowest class formerly referred to as "untouchable." Christianity Today puts the figure at about 60%. Many of these expected to be liberated from caste-based discrimination but found that Dalits who are Christians or Muslims were excluded from the special governmental provisions -- such as free education and special job reservation -- open to Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh Dalits. Christian groups have now hailed a recommendation of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities that the government end this discrimination. The Supreme Court of India is scheduled to hold a hearing related to a petition on the status of Dalit Christians on July 19.

Mass conversion to Buddhism

In Mumbai, India, in May, a rally marked the mass religious conversion to Buddhism of perhaps 100,000 or more people, many from 42 nomadic tribes. The Zee News India reports that the oath taken by the new converts included the explicit words, "I will not believe in . . . any Hindu god." The event came half a century after Babasaheb Ambedkar converted and called lower castes to forsake Hinduism and become Buddhists. The Australian comments, "The issue of religious conversion in India is normally fraught with controversy when it involves Christianity, but not so with Buddhism, which coexists with the majority Hindu religion, despite the extreme zealotry of some of Hinduism's fundamentalist practitioners."

Indian-published book on conversion

Rudolf Heredia, a Jesuit, in a new book published in India, Changing Gods: Rethinking Conversion in India, argues that mass conversions alienate people from their lived beliefs. They do not alter people's devotion and involve them in the "politics of hate."  A review of the book ends with the sharp comment, "In the godless age of globalization, gods too are not changed as an exercise of free will but are bought and sold according to the prevailing price under pressure of predatory advertising."

Asian government decisions on rights of conversion

A Malay woman, baptized as a Christian in 1998, went to Malaysia's civil court in 2000 to get the word "Islam" removed from her identity card. In Malaysia, ethnic Malays' civil, family, marriage, and personal rights are decided by sharia courts, but  the constitution does not say what happens in a case such as this. Malaysia's highest civil court recently gave jurisdiction in the case to the sharia court, however, in an action that could lead to the woman being ruled apostate -- a judgment that in itself could lead to heavy fines and prison sentences. The Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) said that "civil courts [in Malaysia] are abdicating their responsibility of providing legal redress to individuals who only seek to profess and live their religion according to their conscience." Then, on June 19, a note of protest was issued by five minority religious groups that urged their government to take steps to avoid the personal tragedies that occur when Muslims are in practice prevented from converting to other religions. The constitution reads, "Every person has the right to profess and practice his religion" (article 11).

Islamic scholars statements on freedom of religion in Islam

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, wrote for On Line, the Washington Post / Newsweek online program during its "Muslims Speak Out" emphasis. In speaking about freedom of religion in Islam, he said there is no compulsion in religion (Qur'an 2:256) in this world, and it is between the individual and God "unless it is combined with an attempt to undermine the stability of the society, in which case it is the society that holds them to account, not Islam. . . . . . Depending on the circumstances, this may reach the level of a crime of sedition against one’s society. Penalizing this sedition may be at odds with some conceptions of freedom that would go so far as to ensure people the freedom to destroy the society in which they live. This is a freedom that we do not allow since preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms."

Likewise, Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a grand ayatollah and leading Shi'a Muslim intellectual in Lebanon, spoke on the same issue. "Embracing Islam is not only a matter of the heart and faith," he said, "but it is a commitment to belonging to the society and to the practice of Islamic law in the Muslim country the Muslim lives in. it is just like if somebody is living in a country which he does not adopt its cultural concepts." An apostate violates the general order of society.

Egyptian court on rights of Muslim converts from Christianity
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A new ruling concerning 45 Egyptians who wish to reclaim Christian identity after having officially converted to Islam notes that Egypt’s civil law makes no reference to ridda, or abandoning Islam. Thus they are free to return to their earlier status. In an earlier stage of the case, a court had ruled against the 45, saying, “Muslims have not forced anyone to believe in Islam, so they are not allowing anyone to desert Islam and leave it.” Now Christian lawyers argued that there is glaring discrimination with regard to conversion. Although a Christian can be legally declared a Muslim within a day, a Muslim’s conversion to Christianity remains next to impossible. In the course of the trial, it is reported, one of the government lawyers had said that changing the religion category from Muslim to Christian endangers public order.

In the United States

Interfaith organization's statement on proselytism

Since 1987, the InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington has had a statement on proselytism. PDF file requires use of Adobe Reader It says, “We do support the right of all religions to share their message in a spirit of good will. It is inappropriate, however, for one faith group openly to demean or disparage the philosophies or practices of another faith group as part of its proselytizing. Proselytism which does not respect human freedom is carefully to be avoided. Proselytism must be done with a sense of humility and respect for others.”  Presbyterian minister Clark Lobenstine (pictured) is executive director of the conference.

Religious identity not a given in the U.S.

Peter Berger (pictured), the sociologist of religion, says that modernity inevitably moves people to a position of choice. For many Americans, religious identity is no longer a given, says Religious News Service. And USAToday wrote in 2002 that "theology rarely drives conversion. Family does." Conversion statistics will never be neat, says Egon Mayer, one of the authors of the 2001 American Religious Identification Survey conducted at the City University of New York (CUNY). Sixteen percent of Americans have switched their religious identity at some point in their lives, according to the study, and the statistical rates for the numbers leaving and joining both congregations and denominations are strongly correlated. A short video clip online looks at three such converts to Islam from Christianity.

United Methodist proposal on Jewish proselytism

The United Methodist Commission on Christian Unity and Interreligious Concerns is proposing to the church's General Conference that it formally disavow any United Methodist proselytism program aimed at bringing practicing Jews into Christian church membership "even as we acknowledge it to be our obligation as Christians to continue to witness to the truth of the Gospel," according to the United Methodist News Service.

Outreach of U.S. religious organizations

In the American Jewish community, outreach is occurring, especially but not exclusively among the non-Jewish spouses of Jews in interreligious marriages. The Jewish Outreach Institute is “dedicated to creating a more open and welcoming Judaism.” Reform Jewish Outreach invites Jews by choice and seeks to help them find a Jewish home in a synagogue. See a list of resources on Jewish outreach organizations and articles about pro-active Jewish conversion.

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Ehsan Bagby, an American Muslim, says his research indicates that about two-thirds of current American converts to Islam are African-American and a third have other ethnicities. The roots of the American Muslim community are deep and wide. Now Lawrence Mamiya of Vassar College figures there are two million black U.S. Muslims although there are no precise numbers available. A Georgetown scholar gives the statistical figure that 35% of Muslims in the U.S. were born here; the other 64% were born in eighty different countries. Converts to Islam in the U.S. may feel that the Christian church has failed to meet their needs, according to the National Catholic Reporter. Converts in the American black community say they are attracted to its prayer disciplines, Its emphasis on submission to God, and its affinity with people who are oppressed.

Stories of conversion and pressures to convert

Motivations for African-American conversions to Islam in the rather recent past pointed to issues of black identity as well. Masjid Al Quran mosque in Boston, celebrating its golden jubilee, is one of only a few locations that "still stand today that made the transition from the Nation of Islam days into Islam under Imam W. D. Mohammed," and its stories reveal some of the dynamics of the conversion experiences of its older members. The mosque's imam, Taleeb Mahdee (pictured), has a visible role in Boston's public life.


A Sikh woman raised in California, Valarie Kaur, describes pressures to convert to Christianity, to which she was subjected in her girlhood, in a podcast segment of Story Corps.

Episcopal priest who has also embraced Islam

An Episcopal priest and biblical scholar who will be a visiting professor at Seattle University in the fall recently announced she had embraced Islam over a year ago in addition to being a Christian. Ann Holmes Redding (pictured) has been informed by her bishop, after the two talked together, that she is not to exercise any of the responsibilities or privileges of a priest for one year, after which they will communicate again. Redding is asked to reflect upon what the bishop sees as "conflicts inherent in professing both Christianity and Islam." In an interview published in the local Episcopal newsletter (page 10), Redding says she sees no contradiction between the Islamic declaration in the shehadah and the declarations made by Christians at baptism. Redding's situation has been grist for blogs. Her case is reminiscent of another a decade ago in which United Church of Christ minister Benjamin Chaves announced that he had become a member of the Nation of Islam, ultimately leading to his UCC association determining that he could not retain his ministerial standing. Speaking to the press, a member of the UCC commission that examined Chaves said, "Our confession is that Jesus Christ is Son of God, Savior and Lord. If I could sum up the feeling of many on the commission, it is that 'there needs be no other name.'" At stake were questions about the sufficiency and uniqueness of Christ and the finality of Christian revelation -- issues raised in a public dialogue with him, as described in the Christian Century.

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