Is proselytizing an international human right? Does everyone have a right to spread his religion to others? The 1948 U.N. Declaration of Human Rights not only allows believers to publicly “manifest” their religious beliefs but also guarantees a “freedom to change” those beliefs.
Or is proselytizing “identity theft,” coaxing the unwary to give up their faith?
Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs had a conference on this last week, with speakers ranging from Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention to Salam Al-Marayati of the Muslim Political Action Committee mixed in with pentecostals and Mormons. Unfortunately, I was out of town and missed it, but Thomas Farr, a former diplomat and senior fellow at the Berkley Center, told me it got proselytism “on the table.”
The world’s two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, both have the mandate to try to convert others to their faith. However, there’s not equal access. In majority Christian countries, Muslims are free to win adherents to their faith. The exception are Orthodox countries, such as Russia and Greece, which make life difficult for missionaries.
In majority-Muslim countries, Muslims who convert to another religion face persecution, prison, the confiscation of their children and sometimes the death penalty. In India, several states outlaw conversions. Hindu converts to Christianity in places like Orissa are threatened with death unless they revert back to Hinduism.
One point made at the Berkley conference was that religious conversions - often the result of some form of proselytizing - are associated with more open societies and therefore with more democratic and successful societies. Religion competes for adherents instead of compelling them.
However, Mr. Al-Marayati argued that “religious groups can [best] advance themselves through exemplary behavior” rather than active proselytism efforts.
“It’s so controversial,” Mr. Farr said. “There’s a broad perception out in the world that American freedom-of-religion policy is designed to proselytize, that it’s all a front for Christian missionaries. That perception could not be more wrong.”
It brings me back to a conversation I had with noted Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias some years back. He told of a conversation he had had with a Cabinet minister from an Islamic country who admitted that Muslims are not allowed to change religions despite verse 2:256 of the Koran, which states there is “no compulsion” in religion.
“When you say there is no compulsion in religion, you are looking at one side of the coin, meaning you will never force someone to become what you are,” Mr. Zacharias told the minister. “But to have no compulsion means you should not compel somebody to believe something when they want to disbelieve it.
“I said, I didnt become a Christian by being born in a Christian home. And if I choose to disbelieve it, there is no law in the land where I live compelling me to do so. But in your land, if I choose to disbelieve it, I have to stand before a tribunal of justices and explain it. How can I withstand such intimidation and be honest and not pay for it at the same time?
“Frankly, he wouldn’t give me an answer. I think if Islam is going to rise to the level many moderates want to see it, they will have to take off the heavy foot of compulsion in their own lands.”
• Julia Duin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.