Religion has emerged as a major source of conflict all across the globe. A perceptive writer points out that ideological strife has now given place to the “clash of civilizations” and predicts that in the foreseeable future, religion will be a major source of conflict within and among nations. Samuel Huntington asserts that possibilities of conflict are greater in what he calls the “fault lines of civilization”, those areas such as India where different cultures and religions do meet. Huntington further asserts that such clashes can be prevented if appropriate strategies are formulated and implemented at an early stage so as to ensure religious harmony.
Europe is the continent that pioneered the modern concept of secular democracy. In Europe today, whilst there is a definite effort to accept multiculturalism and to respect all religions there is also a perceptive growth of racism and xenophobia. This trend is largely due to the rapidly changing cultural and political landscape in that continent and increased immigration into those countries. The end of the cold war, the reform of the welfare State and economic globalization are transforming the European society and creating a climate of fear and uncertainty. Most Europeans want a solid and stable ground upon which to stand and this, they feel, can be provided by their traditional churches and religion as opposed to new churches and religions Such a mindset, however is a step backwards in the cause of religious freedom. The French law is the most sweeping law on religious minorities which currently exists in Europe. It is feared that it may pave the way for religious intolerance in that country. France pursues a restrictive legislation that stigmatizes minority religions and associates them with dangerous “sects”. In June 1995, the French National Assembly established a Parliamentary Inquiry Commission also known as the Gest - Guyard Commisssion, after the names of its chairman and rapporteur respectively. The purpose of the Commission was to study the new religious groups appearing in France and labelled as sects. The Commission identified 172 groups as ‘sects”. Several of them are Christian groups originating mainly from the United States but some are organizations closely related to the Indian cultural tradition such as ISKCON, Association of Sri Satya Saibaba, Brahmakumaris, Sri Ramakrishna Mission, etc. The Justice Ministry issued a directive to all Government offices to be vigilant against possible abuses by the “sects”. All government offices were instructed to monitor potentially abusive sect activities. The only redeeming feature is the widespread international condemnation which this law has received and which may reflect in its actual implementation.
The Parliamentary Commission of the Council of Europe adopted a resolution in June 1999 giving priority to prevention of “dangerous sects”. The resolution, however, states that “major legislation in this direction is undesirable” and points out that any such legislation might interfere with the freedom of conscience and religion guaranteed by the European Convention of Human Rights.
A document “The challenge of proselytism and the calling to common witness” was formulated in September 1995 by the Joint Working Group of the World Council of Churches, which represents the major Protestant denominations and the Roman Catholic Church. The document refers to “serious concerns about tension and conflicts created by proselytism in nearly all parts of the world”. It defines “proselytism” as “a conscious effort with intention to win members of another church”. It mentions “instances in the developing world in which proselytism takes advantage of people’s misfortunes and situations of poverty in villages, to induce them to change their church affiliation”. It calls for awareness of “the reality of diversity rooted in theological traditions and in various geographical, historical and cultural contexts” and denounces “the use of coercive or manipulative methods in evangelism”. The statement rejects “all violations of religious freedom and all forms of religious intolerance as well as every attempt to impose belief and practices on others or to manipulate or coerce others in the name of religion”. It states “proselytism can violate or manipulate the rights of the individual and can exacerbate tense and delicate relations between communities and thus destabilize society”.
Among the nature and characteristics of proselytism, the document mentions extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care and material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts and manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity. The statement points out “while our focus in this document is on the relationship between Christians, it is important to seek the mutual application of these principles also in interfaith relations. Both christians and communities of other faiths complain about unworthy and unacceptable methods of seeking converts from their respective communities. The increased cooperation and dialogue among people of different faiths could result in witness offered to one another that would respect human freedom and dignity and will be free from the negative activities described above”.
Organized attempts at mass conversion and re-conversion backed by financial or political power can have an explosive backlash to the point of undermining public order. In India, mainline Christian theologians see both the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology and Christian campaigns for evangelization of India as having a fundamentalist attitude and an aggressive methodology to achieve their respective goals. Most Indian Christian theologians disapprove of organized conversions, favour inter-religious dialogue and express the need to study other religions such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and even tribal faiths, so that Christianity learns from their many valuable spiritual insights.
Organized drives for conversion and reconversion should stop. They violate the Constitution of India. Yet, specific legislation such as anti-conversion laws can only promote religious intolerance and animosity, may be misused by executive authorities and is not justified from the very limited positive results obtained. Government should rather, in a subtle manner, promote an agreement among the religious heads of all the major faiths in the country to stop proselytism. Given the positive mindset of theologians belonging to the different religions prevailing in India, this is very much possible.
The following steps should be taken to ensure religious peace and harmony in India:
Formulate a national policy and an action plan to combat religious intolerance, including proselytism, and create an independent national institution for this purpose.
Ensure that adequate training and awareness programmes about religion and religious harmony are formulated for young leaders at all levels and government officials, particularly the police and other law enforcement agencies, judges, teachers and social workers
Assure all victims of religious intolerance adequate support and speedy administrative and judicial remedies. Combat all forms of expression which incite sectarian hatred and take action against dissemination of such material in the media, including the Internet
Counter social exclusion and marginalisation in particular by providing adequate access to all citizens to education, health and employment
Pay specific attention to development of vulnerable groups such as tribals and other weaker sections, and those who suffer discrimination on different grounds
Protect the religious, ethnic and linguistic identity of persons belonging to minorities
Provide effective access to all citizens, including religious minorities, to the decision making process in society.
(The writer is a former Union Minister)