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Suhag A. Shukla, Esq.

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The Question Of Evangelism In India

Posted: 02/05/11 08:42 AM ET

"Conversion, murder and India's Supreme Court" by Mathew Schmalz, Professor of Religious Studies at College of the Holy Cross, was featured on Washington Post's On Faith a few days ago. I take this opportunity to respond to two questions he posed, namely, "Is conversion wrong?" and "Is anger over conversion an extenuating circumstance for murder?"

I'll respond to the second question first, as the answer is simple. No -- anger over conversion is not an extenuating circumstance for murder. Violence of the kind inflicted on Graham Staines and his two young sons is wholly unacceptable, and against teachings of the Hindu religion, India's legacy of peaceful intra and inter-religious coexistence, and the law. Many, including the Hindu American Foundation, though, see the specific comments by the Indian Supreme Court now modified, not as a basis for justifying extenuating circumstances, but rather an expression of the growing concern over foreign missionaries and their impact on India's hallmark pluralistic ethos. This takes us back to the first question: "Is conversion wrong?"

The answer, as one might expect, is complicated. Professor Schmalz states that many Indian Protestant and Catholic denominations "eschew overt conversion efforts," but the reason he cites as to why -- that of "political repercussions" -- short-changes the overriding influence Hinduism's pluralistic worldview has had not only on Christianity, but other religions in India. India has long been a beacon of religious pluralism. The sage Hindu observation -- Ekam sat vipraha bahudha vadanti (The Truth is one, the wise call It by many names) -- has fostered an environment in which an unprecedented diversity of traditions and religions have, for the large part, peacefully co-existed for millennia. Like America, India's shores accepted and sheltered the religiously persecuted -- from Jews arriving 2500 years ago, to early Christians bringing the message of Christ, not to Hindus, but to their brethren, the Cochin Jews. Later came the Parsis from Iran. Others came not to escape but on their own free will -- Arab Muslims to trade, and others from far away lands seeking India's spirituality. Each one of these newcomers sought to live and let live, mixing in, as the legend goes, like sugar in milk.

But since the 12th century, starting with the Islamic invasions and colonizing European missionaries to today, India faces a different kind of religious visitor -- one that seeks not to sweeten the milk, but curdle it.

Exhibit A -- the evangelical Joshua Project -- is just one example of what India, at the heart of the 10-40 Window, is facing. The Joshua Project is an information powerhouse -- detailing logistical information about people groups around the world, and providing ideas to Evangelicals committed to mass church-planting, and in turn conversions, among every ethnic group. The data is meticulous and well-researched, and both shocking and disturbing.

The Joshua Project lists the percentage of unreached in India as 93.3% -- that's basically every Indian Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Sikh, and Buddhist. Last-name, clan, caste, or tribe-based communities are catalogued according to location, religious affiliation, language, and population -- the data collection puts the postal systems of most developed nations to shame. Technical acronyms such as CPI, or Church Planting Indicator, with a ranking system of 0 to 5, measure the progress of church growth based on churches established and number of "believers" regularly attending. Then there's the progress scale which allows the "Saved" to track, well ... "progress" of the "Harvest" -- red indicating less than 2% Evangelical and less than 5% Christian, yellow indicating less than 2% Evangelical but greater than 5% Christian, and green indicating from 2% to greater than 5% Evangelical. And of course, what worldwide project of this scale and in this century would be complete without an iPhone App?

The response by a few states in India to campaigns inspired by projects like Joshua, and what can be characterized as nothing less than primarily American and European faith-based ops intended to alter Indian religious demographics, has been what most outside of India refer to as "anti-conversion" laws. Interestingly, many of these same states, as well as Indian states with rising inter-religious tension, when cross-checked with the Joshua Project's "progress" scale, are states that show increasing green and yellow. Some may ask, what's the big deal? Doesn't the 2001 Indian census indicate only 2.3% of the population as Christian? Yes, but these percentages have come under question given the fact that a large number of converts retain their Hindu names and claim Hindu status for a variety of reasons. The data from Joshua Project, which doesn't account for non-Evangelical efforts, also suggests rapid growth.

Contrary to what "anti-conversion" laws may imply by their title, they do not outlaw the right of any individual to convert based upon genuine faith, belief, study, or religious experience. They also don't restrict Christians who provide social services in various parts of India with no ulterior conversion motive. Most anti-conversion laws seek only to address conversions "by force, allurement, or fraudulent means." They are the effort of sovereign states to regulate those, mostly Christian aid groups, for which the provision of aid to these vulnerable communities is not altruistic, but rather part of a soul-saving numbers game. While such motives have proven difficult to document, media reports following the 2004 Asian Tsunami revealed incidents where missionaries actually packed up and left when the residents of some tsunami-shattered villages in India refused to convert as a precondition for receiving material aid.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and other human rights groups have long decried these laws against fraudulent conversion that have emerged throughout the 10-40 Window, or as is more affectionately referred to by some missionaries, "The Resistance Belt." Human rights violation or denial of religious freedom are the frequently recited mantras in these "watch-dog" circles. But as adherents and advocates of a non-proselytizing, non-exclusivist, pluralistic tradition, we at the Hindu American Foundation have always asked -- the religious freedom of whom? The freedom of foreign missionaries to proselytize and prey upon vulnerable, generally poor people to convert them to a myopic religious worldview that denigrates or denies the legitimacy of all other traditions, or that of adherents of mostly non-exclusivist and pluralistic traditions, to be treated medically, educated, or employed without having to sell their souls?

Religious freedom, according to Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, incorporates, "the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance." This concept of religious freedom has unfortunately failed to address, at the expense of adherents of pluralist and non-exclusivist religious traditions such as Hinduism and other Dharmic traditions, the right to retain one's tradition and to be free from intrusion, harassment, intimidation, and aggressive, exploitative, and predatory proselytization by non-pluralist and exclusivist religions.

The world community has for too long turned a blind eye to aggressive and predatory proselytization and resulting conversions that have been carried out for centuries in Asia, Africa, North and South America, the Middle East and Europe. This collective complacency is counter-productive to peace and has bred a resurgence in international campaigns which harass, intimidate, and exploit the most vulnerable segments of society by, among other ethically questionable methods, conditioning humanitarian aid or economic, educational, medical or social assistance upon conversion; overtly denigrating other religions to seek converts; and intentionally promoting religious hatred, bigotry (hate speech), and violence. Conversions gained through such means must be recognized for what they are -- unethical, fraudulent, forced, coerced, or provoked.

Professor Schmalz says that the concerns about conversion are unfounded. But we need only look to the annual statistics of just one missionary organization and recognize that there is a multiplicative effect.

Exhibit B -- Houston-based Central India Christian Mission. In 2010 alone, its evangelical missionaries proselytized to over 320,000 people and converted more than 19,600 inhabitants -- that's enough people to fill a basketball arena -- in central India. This is only one of countless U.S. based Christian organizations engaged in aggressive and predatory "soul harvesting" campaigns. Consider the plethora of Catholic and Protestant organizations that are actively pursuing the monopolistic path of religious exclusivity, and the numbers, and more importantly, the impact, are beyond mind-blowing.

Exhibit C -- eye-opening information from India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act which collects data on incoming foreign aid. In 2007, the top two non-governmental donors to India were U.S.-based missionary organizations, World Vision International at ~$155 million and Gospel for Asia ~$99.5 million -- together that's $255 million into India in just one year. Overall, an astonishing 18,996 organizations in India, a disproportionate number linked to Christian missionaries, received donations totaling $2.4 billion in 2007 alone. And the inflow has been growing rapidly. 2007 showed contributions more than double of 2002. With these numbers, how can we say the concerns are unfounded?

At the end of the day, numbers and statistics, though illustrative, fail to address the very real human factor on the losing side of the proselytization and conversion equation. Conversion, when born from genuine faith, belief, study, or religious experience, can be beautiful. But, conversion begot by aggressive or predatory proselytization is a form of violence. As one of the co-founders of HAF, Aseem Shukla, eloquently stated, "The violence of conversion is very real. The religious conversion is too often a conversion to intolerance. A convert is asked to repudiate his sangha (community), reject the customs and traditions of his family passed down for generations, and refuse to attend religious ceremonies that are the very basis of daily life in much of the world. A person's conversion begins a cascade of upheaval that tears apart families, communities and societies creating a political and demographic tinderbox that too often explodes."

Got milk? India does and she'd like to keep it sweet.