Proselytism or a Global Ethic?

03/03/2015 05:40 pm ET | Updated May 03, 2015

On March 4, the Religious Freedom Project of the Berkeley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University, will hold a day-long Public Dialogue in Washington D.C. on the controversial topic of proselytism and global development. Three panels of religious leaders, development practitioners, and scholars will examine the issue from diverse perspectives. The keynote conversation will feature Pastor Rick Warren, founder of Saddleback Church, and Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service. This column seeks to contribute to the discourse on this timely and important subject.

Proselytism is commonly understood as attempts by religious organizations or religious individuals to convert people to their own religious beliefs. The international instrument most pertinent to the issue of religious freedom is the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which came into effect in 1976. Article 18 of the ICCPR upholds that "Everyone shall have the right to freedom of... religion including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." The Article also states that "No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion..." and that the "Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others." In addition, Article 18 calls on parties to the ICCPR to "undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents... to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions."

All religious groups are expected to respect these stipulations. This applies equally to Christianity and Islam, the two largest religions in the world which also have theological injunctions to convert others. However, many religious groups are violating ICCPR stipulations in many different ways including using the Internet for conversion purposes. Many groups are also making use of international humanitarian and development aid to convert poor and vulnerable communities to their own religious and political ideologies.

Funding from oil rich Middle Eastern countries, such as Saudi Arabia, helps provide basic provisions and education to poor children in countries like Pakistan and Indonesia. Where education and schools are controlled by Islamic fundamentalist groups, the funding facilitates "Islamist extremism and the activity of jihad" that critics see as"'violent expressions of an Islamic proselytism project." Many also see terrorism and the "war on terror" today as a global struggle between extremist forms of Islam and Christianity.

Christian evangelical organizations from the industrialized North active in the global South (and the former Soviet bloc) are closely aligned with the foreign policy of the U.S. and its western allies. The Office of Faith Based Community Initiatives launched at the U.S. State Department in 2013 (a continuation of the policy of President George W. Bush) seeks to advance the Department's diplomacy and development objectives through greater engagement with faith-based communities. However, as Elizabeth Hurd from Foreign Policy magazine points out, "When the United States officially engages actors abroad as 'religious,' it sets standards that effectively bolster the sects, denominations, and religious authorities that it has defined as benevolent, while marginalizing less desirable counterparts." Indeed, partisan engagement can foment division and conflict instead of fostering peace and unity in plural societies.

Hundreds of faith based groups, including those aligned with donor governments, routinely provide aid -- food, housing, education and employment -- to children, youth and victims of disasters around the world. Many faith based NGOs use the provision of aid as an opportunity to gain access to vulnerable communities for religious conversion. Psychologist and former evangelical, Valerie Tarico, points out the moral plight Hindu and other non-Christian parents face, when they have to choose between a "bare local school or a Christian school that provides paper, pencils and books." In such situations, parents' freedom to pass on their religious heritage to their children, a right upheld in IPCCR Article 18, is violated. World Vision, the world's largest private development aid organization, has come under much criticism for making use of the poverty and desperation of poor parents in advancing its evangelical mission to convert children to Christianity.

Poor communities do not have materials and other resources to compete in a modern "religious marketplace" desired by proselytizing groups backed by external economic and political powers. Adoption of a new religion in exchange for material necessities does not come from inner conviction. It does not constitute free individual "choice" as called for by ICCPR Article 18. Rather, it signifies a loss of the right to 'have' or maintain an ancestral religion, a freedom also stipulated in the same Article.

Proselytizing strategies of Christian charities and NGOs, such as, attempts to indigenize or appropriate local traditions, create psychological confusion and identity conflicts in individuals, families and local communities. Hindu, Buddhist and indigenous communities in India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand and elsewhere were historically open to religious diversity and new religious influences. However, threatened by the advance of Christian proselytism and other factors, such as, relatively higher population growth rates of Muslim communities, they are now becoming intolerant of other religions. Their efforts to ensure religious and cultural survival are giving rise to various forms of resistance including anti-conversion bills and violent attacks against proselytizing individuals and institutions. Governments, frequently enmeshed in these complex conflicts over freedom of religion, find it difficult to protect public safety and order as prescribed by law and ICCPR Article 18.

Aggression and violence towards proselytizers or any religious group must never be condoned. They must be subjected to justice and the rule of law. However, in seeking lasting solutions to growing "religious" conflicts, it is necessary to question simplistic assertions of primordial hatred or majority vs. minority violence. It is important to examine how the poverty and powerlessness engendered by corporate globalization has created the ground for unethical conversions. Neoliberal economic policies, such as, Structural Adjustment advanced since the 1980s, led to the privatization of state social services. This in turn led to the entry of NGOs, especially faith-based groups, to fill the vacuum. Proselytizing sects, be it Christian, Islamic or other, thrive in conditions of poverty and victimization. They help redirect mass anger and despair towards inner salvation and even martyrdom at the expense of efforts to challenge growing economic inequality and unsustainable globalization.

The freedom to maintain or adopt a religion is a fundamental human right. However, this freedom cannot be realized in the absence of other fundamental freedoms, such as the right to food, shelter, healthcare, education and a decent livelihood. Political and religious conflicts are taking on more and more extremist and violent forms across the world: filmed beheadings, suicide bombings, surgical drone strikes, assaults on synagogues, churches, temples, mosques and Mother Earth herself. As naïve and difficult it may seem, it is essential to uphold a perspective that identifies the unity among all religions, people and nature.

A "Global Ethic", as the one agreed upon by over 200 leaders from over 40 faith traditions at the World Parliament of Religions in 1993, needs to be supported. It identifies the inherent equality of all human beings, genuine compassion and generosity as the binding values and irrevocable standards for global society. The seriousness of ethnoreligious conflict, ecological collapse and climate change call for the weakening of narrow sectarianism and the strengthening of a universal spirituality based on human conscience.