Historic consensus on proselytizing

June 28, 2011

Christian missionaries should re­nounce all "deception and coercive
means" of winning converts, according to a final document from a
co­alition of evangelicals, the World Council of Churches and the
Vatican that is unprecedented in its breadth.

"Christian Witness
in a Multi-Religious World: Recommendations for Conduct" is the latest
attempt to assuage sometimes violent tensions over proselytizing in
non-Christian societies. The agreement was re­leased June 28 in Geneva,
Switzerland.

The WCC, the Vatican's Pontifical Council for
Interreligious Dialogue and the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA)
together "represent over 90 percent of the world's total Christian
population," according to a WEA statement, which hailed the accord as
the "first document of its kind in the history of the church."

Cardinal
Jean-Louis Tauran of the Vatican council noted that this was the first
time the three Christian bodies have worked together. The key message of
the text, said Olav Fykse Tveit, the WCC general secretary, is that in
witnessing to the Christian faith, "our task is . . . not to impose it
or not provoke anybody in the way we present it."

The document has
political significance as well, said Geoff Tunnicliffe, CEO and
secretary general of the evangelical group. It shows "that Christians
are not only able to work together, but that together we are an even
stronger voice on behalf of those who suffer oppression and
persecution," he said.

The document calls on individual Christian
churches to develop guidelines for proselytizing "among those of
different religions and among those who do not profess any particular
religion."

Christian missionaries are to "reject all forms of
violence . . . including the violation or destruction of places of
worship, sacred symbols or texts," the document says. Instead, they
should "acknowledge and appreciate what is true and good" in other
religions and make any criticisms "in a spirit of mutual respect."

The
document also calls on missionaries to respect the "full personal
freedom" of their converts by allowing them "sufficient time for
adequate reflection and pre­paration" before they adopt a new faith.

Noting
the importance of faith healing in many ministries, the document
instructs missionaries to ensure that the "vulnerability of people and
their need for healing are not exploited." Likewise, the document
denounces proselytizing with the use of "financial incentives and
rewards."

Though not a full-throated apology for such practices,
the injunctions are "tantamount to an admission that they have been
going on," said Daniel A. Madigan, an expert on Muslim-Christian
relations at Georgetown University.

While the document recommends
sensitivity in missionary work, it also affirms religious freedom as a
fundamental human right, "including the right to publicly profess,
practice, propagate and change one's religion."

Preparation of the
document began in 2006, largely in response to accusations of
"unethical methods" used by Christian missionaries, according to the WEA
statement. The document does not name specific countries or regions.
"In some cases these objections have led to anticonversion laws and
violence," the WEA noted.

A 2009 study by the Pew Research
Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life said the highest levels of
legal and social restrictions on religious freedom are found in
non-Christian countries, including Iran, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan,
India and Saudi Arabia.  —RNS/ENInews