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Witness in a Multireligious World

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


xJean-Louis Tauran, Olav Fykse Tveit, Geoff Tunnicliffe in Geneva for document launch

| A new document | The path to the document | Prior statements | A few cases | Special case of the Jews |


An historic new document

Geoff Tunnicliffe, the secretary general of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), has called it a major achievement, the "first of its kind in the history of the church." On June 28, leaders of three major Christian bodies—the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Pontifical Council on Inter-religious Dialogue (PCID), and the WEA—released "Christian Witness in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct." The moment is historic in the quest for Christian unity, bringing together diverse Christian bodies to speak together formally on "the essence of Christian mission." In a very real sense, it can be said that the combined membership of the three bodies represents some 90% of the world's Christians. Together they have identified "the biblical call to evangelism" and outlined "the ethical mandates related to the Gospel."

WCC general secretary Olav Fykse Tveit has expressed the hope that various constituencies of the three bodies " will see these recommendations as an inspiration to design their own codes of conduct, relevant to their own particular contexts."  PCID president Jean-Louis Tauran said Christan leaders "have a duty to proclaim the faith" and also "to propose a greater vision of dialogue."

Listen to the presentations made at the public launch of the document by Tveit, Tunnicliffe, and Tauran; or read the Tunnicliffe remarks. (The document and the audio presentations are also available in Spanish or German.)

Early comments on the document

Comments come from two professors at Georgetown University who work in Christian-Muslim relations. Daniel Madigan says the paper is "tantamount to an admission that [some objectionable practices] have been going on." John Esposito points to an issue still to worked out: "How much are [Christians] going to say that witness in today's world should be witness of one's Christian life and one's service, rather than an aggressive form of preaching and proselytizing?"

Robert Evans reports for Reuters on the background of the document, saying among other things, "Tensions have . . . risen in recent decades as evangelical Protestants have stepped up efforts to convert Muslims, which is a capital offence in some Islamic countries. This also prompts retaliation against local Christians who do not seek converts."

Christianity Today notes things that are "missing" as the three bodies have cooperated together. Beyond this, Craig Ott of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School says, "There's [at] least four mentions of the necessity of interreligious relationships and continuous commitment to engagement with other religions," something evangelicals may not accept. Dana Robert of Boston University sees that "language like convert or evangelize"  is not in the document. "For the secular world and for proponents of other religions, conversion has often been seen as a coercive act. So to abandon that language is an important statement about the Christian intention to carry out evangelism with love, through relationships, with dependence on Christ."


Note: Older sections on this site are archived and links may be out of date

The path to the document

The background of the study

The PCIR and the WCC's Office on Interreligious Relations and Dialogue initiated a study on the controversial issue of religious conversion in 2006, with a projection that it would be concluded in 2009. Their goals were (1) to address religious conversion and changes of religious affiliation from a Christian perspective and (2) to establish, in cooperation with people of other faiths, a Christian code of conduct on religious conversion. In August 2007, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) became a part of the process, beginning as participants in an intra-Christian consultation.

"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," the WCC's then 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 hoped that it could provide guidance and a kind of "peer pressure" which advances the cause of religious freedom. They wanted a "code" that could 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. The same code might also help ease tensions within the Christian community itself where, for example, the issue is a tense one between the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement in Latin America.

The staff responsibility in the WCC for work toward a document was first undertaken by Hans Ucko and later by Shanta Premawardhana. Ucko's reflections on the issues involved were published in Curren Dialogue in February 2008. A key Vatican staff person was Thai priest Andrew Vissanu Thanya-anan, secretary of the PCID's Buddhism desk ; Archbishop Pier Luigi Celata heads the commission for relations with Muslims and Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran is president of the PCID


Stage One: Interfaith consultation

A May 2006 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." Its reflections and recommendations included:

  • Freedom of religion is a fundamental, non-negotiable right that includes freedom to practice one’s faith, to propagate the teachings of a faith, and to embrace another faith by free choice.
  • The right to invite others to one's faith should not violate others’ rights or religious sensibilities. There should be transparency in the practice.
  • Humanitarian work should be carried out with no ulterior motives and without taking advantage of the vulnerable. 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.

Stage Two: intra-Christian consultation

An August 2007 intra-Christian consultation looked toward an end-product, an ethical code of conduct for religious conversions. The initial staff presentation provided an idea of where the project needed to go to respond to the voices of the many Christian participants -- evangelicals, Pentecostals, Protestants, Anglicans, Orthodox, and Catholics. The WCC press report on the meeting listed some of the issues:

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

As a practical step in intra-Christian consultation, the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) signalled that it was willing to discuss the work of evangelical missionaries in Muslim-majority countries with the Orthodox churches that have been there for centuries, both Eastern and Oriental. At an October 2008 meeting on Muslim-Christian dialogue, Thomas Schirrmacher of the WEA's institute for religious freedom acknowledged the tensions caused when evangelicals converted from Islam try to convert Orthodox Christians. In speaking of distinctive marks of the evangelical approach to Islam, he said that mission and peace can go together "as long as mission is done in a gentle and respectful way," but that persecution is an integral part to witnessing faith. WEA would always be on the side of persecuted Christians. (ENI #08-0841)

See several presentations made at the 2007 consultation.

Stage Three: Preparation of a document

Over a period of two years, four meetings were held between committees of the PCID and WCC to prepare the draft for finalization. In late January 2011, agreement on a document was reached at a meeting in Bangkok, Thailand, attended by 45 representatives of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue (PCIR), and the WEA.


Prior Statements

The WCC stance on proselytism

A document, 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, addresses 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.

Hans Ucko, then in the WCC office on Inter-Religious Affairs and Dialogue, spoke to an Indian newspaper, the Deccan Herald, in the fall of 2006, saying "any targeting of others [is] a disrespectful act. It objectifies the other, reducing him or her to be only a receiver of what I have to say or communicate." But Ucko did not endorse use of legislation to ban "proselytism."

The Lausanne 2010 Cape Town Commitment to ethical evangelism

Coming out of the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism in Capetown, South Africa, in October 2010, "The Cape Town Commitment: A Confession of Faith and a Call to Action" was released at the end of January 2011 and is posted online by the WEA. The statement (in III.1) rejects any approach toward people of other faiths that forces conversion. It identifies proselytism as an attempt to compel others to become "one of us" or to "accept our religion." The statement (in III.1.A) says, "We commit ourselves to be scrupulously ethical in all our evangelism. Our witness is to be marked by ‘gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience.’ We therefore reject any form of witness that is coercive, unethical, deceptive, or disrespectful." It expresses a refusal to caricature other faiths (in III.1.C) and affirms the "proper place for dialogue" (in III.1.D).


A few cases around the world

In Asia and the Middle East

Ferment and violence in India

Indian Christians of the Bangalore Initiative for Religious Dialogue (BIRD) proposed an amendment to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that would add 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." At the same time, the BIRD members affirm the Great Commission that "unequivocally calls us to witness to Christ in a pluralistic setting."

At the October 2008 meeting of the synod of the Church of North India (CNI), the general secretary complained that, in the name of freedom of religion, several Indian states have passed anti-conversion laws yet have kept reconversion to Hinduism out of the purview of these laws under the logic that "reconversion is returning home." The synod met under the shadow of intercommunal violence that followed the August 2008 killing of Swami Lakshmanananda Saraswati, an outspoken Hindu critic of conversion. In the U.S., the NCC's Michael Kinnamon said that "Christianity is not a new implant in India" and that the problem is not an interfaith struggle. The WCC's Sam Kobia met with the Indian president, who acknowledged Christianity as a part of India's religious heritage.

One of the tensions in India has been the issue of Dalits (once called "untouchables") who have become either Muslim or Christian, since this change has meant they have been excluded from affirmative action provisions otherwise given to Dalits. Now, a report of the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, presented in the national Parliament in December 2009 has recommended de-linking of the official Dalit status from religion.    

Why convert?

One of the most widely read columnists in India, Khushwant Singh, reflects in the Hindustan Times about reasons people convert from one faith to another.

– Some "do not find solace in the faith of their ancestors."

– Others, the largest number of converts, "come from communities discriminated against."

– Still others "converted out of gratitude" -- a response toward those who have run the best schools, colleges, and hospitals in India, inexpensively and free of corruption.

– And others make a change because of the dynamics of intermarriage.

He asserts that "these days there are no forced conversions anywhere in the world. India is no exception."

The Catholic bishop of Mumbai has said, "None of us is born a Christian or a Hindu or a Muslim . . .  Rather we are born within a religion—or better, in a religious community." The exercise of freedom concerning the community in which one will remain is not so much a religious right, he says, as a human right.

At a November 2008 ceremony, a speaker said that conversion is not merely a communal issue but a matter of survival of the rich heritage of Vedic Hindu civilization in the country. According to government census figures, Christians make up less than 2 1/2% of the population of India. The National Catholic Reporter says 60-75% of Indian Catholics are from tribal or dalit background, calling this an "inspiring social as well as spiritual triumph."


Islamic scholars statements on freedom of religion in Islam

Ali Gomaa, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, wrote that 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" and "preservation of the society takes precedence over personal freedoms." Likewise, according to Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was a leading Lebanese Shi'a intellectual, "Embracing Islam is not only a matter of the heart and faith, 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." The BBC reports that Abdal Hakim Murad, a lecturer at Cambridge University, points out that Islamic law is diverse and, "in terms of public law, on most issues there is no consensus." Some scholars favor a death penalty for apostasy—the abandonment of one's faith—and others say the punishment should be left to God on the day of judgment.


In Europe and the United States

Joint agreement across religious traditions

• A joint declaration on the freedom of religion and the right to conversion was signed on August 22, 2007 by the general secretaries of the Islamic Council of Norway and the [Lutheran] Church of Norway council on ecumenical and international relations, the majority religious group. The church council leader said, "As far as we know, this is the first time that a church and representative national Muslim organization have jointly acknowledged the right to convert."

• The InterFaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington has had a statement on proselytism since 1987. Presbyterian minister Clark Lobenstine is executive director of the conference.

• Dialogue partners from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and the National Council of Synagogues agreed at a fall 2009 meeting that "proselytism understood as coercion or manipulation is a corruption of authentic witness to one's faith," in the words of a USCCB news release. The USCCB chair for ecumenical and interreligious affairs said, “Any effort to lead a person to faith that tramples on human freedom betrays a lack of respect for human dignity.” See the news release for more on the content of the dialogue.


The special case of Christian evangelization of Jews

An international task force of the theological commission of the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has issued a statement, the "Berlin Declaration on the Uniqueness of Christ and Jewish Evangelism in Europe Today," for study and consideration. Completed in August 2008 by 13 scholars, six of whom are from the U.S., it calls for "renewed commitment to the task of Jewish evangelism" as well as "respect for religious conviction and liberty." The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has called the statement an affront.

Earlier documents from the WEA include the Willowbank Declaration of 1989, viewed as a landmark statement, and a one-page statement urging Christian evangelization of Jews, published in Christian magazines and secular newspapers during April and May 2008 (appearing in g a March 28 New York Times ad). In response to the early 2008 statement, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) countered that Jewish converts to Christianity are "using their religious and cultural Jewish experience as tools to proselytize Jews" and a blogger wrote that "the ad pretends it is directed as a friendly communique to Jews. I actually took it as a declaration of war." In September, the ADL again made a statement and the Jerusalem Post, writing about it, quoted AJC's director of interfaith relations David Rosen. Rosen as saying that some of the groups most energetic for Israel are the strongest believers in the need to convert.

See the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) study document on a Theological Understanding of the Relationship Between Christians and Jews.


On this web site:

Religious Freedom: guarding human rights
Presbyterian Principles for Interfaith Dialogue: General Assembly-adopted guidance

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