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PROSELYTISM VS. EVANGELISM IN INDIA Wrestling with the definition of religious freedom BY ALLISON DUNCAN

does not capture the full scope of persecution in India, since only a few anti-Christian attacks are reported to the police and announced by the media.4 The report does note major exceptions to India’s protection of religious freedom, however, such as some of the attacks against religious minorities, some authorities’ neglect in checking these attacks, and the existence of anti-conversion laws.5 Most anti-conversion laws in Indian states are similar to the one enacted in the state of Orissa, which reads,“No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means...” 6 Although the Indian Constitution gives Indians the freedom to “profess, practice, and propagate religion,” their supreme court has interpreted this to mean that “there is no fundamental right to convert another person to one’s own religion” because this “impinge[s] on the freedom of conscience guaranteed to all the citizens of the country alike.”Yet the court has also said ambiguously that the constitution allows citizens “to transmit or spread one’s religion by an exposition of its tenets.” 7 Freedoms may be further curtailed by states whose laws define “inducement” as the offer of temptation in the form of a gift or benefit.These nebulous definitions of “propagation” and “inducement” leave room for authorities to brand valid persuasive discussion and charitable services as unlawful proselytism. The anti-conversion laws of several Indian states indicate governmental reluctance to recognize that respectful religious debate and loving service to people of all beliefs are a legitimate part of practicing and propagating faith. Anti-conversion laws are often called freedom of religion acts, suggesting that legislators equate freedom of religion with freedom from being persuaded to convert. Unfortunately, the popular Indian stereotype of missions

Indian authorities and Christians are engaged in an ongoing dispute over the meaning of religious freedom and what constitutes unethical and unlawful proselytism. Four of 28 Indian states have enacted anti-conversion laws, and three more states are considering these laws.1 The legislation is ostensibly meant to protect citizens from coercive evangelistic efforts. However, because of the ambiguity of these laws, along with apparent reluctance from some authorities to enforce the Indian Constitution’s already precarious protection of religious freedom, activities like holding prayer meetings and providing humanitarian aid, education, and healthcare can be considered illegal proselytizing.2 Last Christmas, Hindu fundamentalists attacked 13 churches and several Christian organizations and clergy, apparently deeming their celebration of Christmas and their community service a violation of Orissa state’s anti-conversion law.3 To untangle the conflict over different definitions of illegitimate proselytism and legitimate evangelism, both Christians and Indian government officials will need to make good-faith efforts. Christians in particular have a reputation in India for coercive evangelism, and as such their service and witnessing must be above reproach in order to avoid accusations from authorities with anti-Christian biases. And wherever the Indian church practices responsible evangelism, Indian state governments should recognize and welcome the church’s contributions to society rather than criminalizing its work. Tensions have been running high. For example, some nongovernmental organizations and Christian groups have noticed an increase of targeted attacks against Christians, especially in states dominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s leading Hindu nationalist party. Despite these reports of escalating violence, the US Department of State published a report last September that praises India in general for its protection of religious freedom. But Christian leaders maintain that the report

PRISM 2008


INDIA as an imperialistic, Western-based effort to threaten or bribe indigenous people is to some extent warranted.Without proper supervision and with a misguided zeal to report revival in India to their supporters, some Christians have resorted to unscrupulous methods of evangelism. In one case, missions organizations gave Indians a motorcycle and funding but not the oversight they needed to do evangelism. The Indians gathered townspeople for dinner and a church service and took pictures to show Westerners all the new believers. Other incidents of bought conversions have been reported, where Christians have used offers of healthcare or education to lure potential converts.8 These examples of proselytism have understandably caused Christians to lose credibility. However, the Catholic Church and Protestant denominations have repeatedly condemned attempts at evangelism that smack of coercion or fraud or that exploit poverty as a pretext for proselytism. Despite this general agreement between Indian Hindus and Christians of different denominations about what constitutes unacceptable means of evangelism, some Indian state governments continue to resist legislative change on this issue. The nature of the laws, the observations of some human rights workers, and the comments of some Hindu nationalists suggest that one reason for resistance is that the Hindu majority wants to maintain its numbers and keep the underclasses in their place. Under most anti-conversion laws, people who try to convert women, minors, Dalits (formerly called “untouchables”), or tribal people face the longest prison terms and heaviest fines.9 None of the laws prohibit re-conversion to Hinduism. This evidence leads some commentators to speculate that the real motive behind anti-conversion laws is that high-caste Hindus want to uphold discrimination by keeping these groups under Hindu social hierarchy. If Dalits or other groups choose another faith, Hindus can no longer claim religious and social authority over these social inferiors, and the power of the majority crumbles. Joseph D’Souza, president of the Dalit Freedom Network and the All India Christian Council, said,“The upper castes want to keep [Dalits] as slaves,” referring to the anticonversion laws.10 The rhetoric used by certain BJP leaders is consistent with D’Souza’s interpretation. Rajnath Singh, the BJP chairman, once remarked, “Conversions comprise the greatest danger to our society: We cannot allow the demographic profile of the country to be changed. We will not let Hindus become a minority, as somebody has said they would be by 2060. As long as the BJP is on the political scene, it will fight such attempts tooth and nail.... As soon as I became chairman of the party, I asked all leaders to ensure anti-conversion laws were adopted in all our states, to destroy the plans of Christian missionaries.” 11 According to many human rights advocates, these laws negatively impact Indian society. Christian Solidarity Worldwide

has observed that the laws may obstruct charitable work if officials decide that education and development efforts fall under the category of “inducement” or “allurement” to conversion.12 In June 2006, Paul Marshall, then senior fellow at the Center for Religious Freedom, Freedom House, said that the laws lock people into Hinduism against their convictions and hinder free society by blocking open discussion.13 Again, the irony of this conflict is that most supporters of anti-conversion laws and most Christians in India agree that force and enticement are unacceptable methods of evangelism. Acknowledging this mutual understanding in principle is one step to deciding in practice whether some missionaries are guilty of exploitation or coercion. By clearly offering services to people of all faiths and stressing that conversion is not a requirement for people to receive benefits, Christians will avoid appearing manipulative or sending mixed messages (even unintentionally).When church authorities vigilantly hold the ministries they sponsor accountable, they will ensure that they serve people and evangelize with integrity. After denouncing charges of discrimination made against a Christian dental college, Indian Archbishop Marampudi Joji said in August 2007, “Christians are a minority population at the service of the majority community. Recently a survey conducted by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India revealed a Hindu majority in Christian [educational] institutes: 53 percent Hindus, 22.7 percent Catholics, and 8.6 percent Muslims. And Dalits and tribals have always been welcomed and through education can improve their situation.” 14 In light of the educational as well as medical, financial, and vocational service that Christians offer to the population regardless of their religion or caste, Indian governments should acknowledge the positive effects of religious activity. Indian converts to Christianity should give testimony stating their free choice of another religion and that Christianity’s attraction is not a result of an evangelist’s manipulation. Both Christians and proponents of anti-conversion laws have a responsibility to resolve conflicting definitions of religious freedom. If they reach a mutual understanding in a transparent dialogue, Indian governments will be more likely to amend the laws to specify what conversion techniques are prohibited to keep authorities from interpreting laws to the detriment of Christians and other religious minorities and their work. ■ A former research associate at the Institute for Global Engagement, Allison Duncan is a freelance writer based in Broomall, Pa. This article was adapted from a piece written for the Institute for Global Engagement ( (Editor’s note: due to space limitations, the endnotes for this article have been posted at

PRISM 2008


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