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Proselytism // is the act of attempting to convert people to another religion or opinion. The word proselytize is derived ultimately from the Greek language prefix προσ- (toward) and the verb ἔρχομαι (to come) in the form of προσήλυτος (a new comer). Historically in the Koine Greek Septuagint and New Testament, the word proselyte denoted a gentile who was considering conversion to Judaism. Though the word proselytism originally referred to Early Christianity (and earlier Gentiles such as God-fearers), it now refers to the attempt of any religion or religious individuals to convert people to their beliefs, or any attempt to convert people to a different point of view, religious or not. Proselytism is illegal in some countries.
In the writings of the Bahá'í Faith, the endeavour to attract people to the religion is strongly emphasized. The process of attracting people to the religion is referred to as teaching. The term proselytism is given the connotation of aggressively teaching the religion to others, and is prohibited.
Every Bahá'í has the obligation of teaching their religion, as it is seen as the path toward bringing peace and justice to the world. Some Bahá'ís move to other countries or cities where there are a small number of Bahá'ís to help spread the religion, and this is called pioneering. Some other Bahá'ís move from place to place in a process called travel teaching. When moving or travelling to other countries Bahá'ís are encouraged to integrate into their new society and apply Bahá'ís principles in living and working with their neighbours. In total, however, only a small minority of Bahá'ís are directly teaching their religion to others.
Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of the Bahá'í Faith, wrote that those who would be teaching his religion should emphasize the importance of ethics and wisdom, and he counselled Bahá'ís to be unrestrained and put their trust in God. At the same time he stated that Bahá'ís should exercise moderation, tact and wisdom and not be too aggressive in their teaching. In sharing their faith with others, Bahá'ís are cautioned to make sure the person they are proposing to teach is open to hearing what they have to say. In most countries becoming a Bahá'í is a simple matter of filling out a card stating a declaration of belief. This includes acknowledgement of Bahá'u'llah as the messenger of God for this age, awareness and acceptance of his teachings, and intention to be obedient to the institutions and laws he established. It does not involve negating on one's previous beliefs, due to the Bahá'í belief in progressive revelation.
Many Christians consider it their obligation to follow what is often termed the Great Commission of Jesus, recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen." The Acts of the Apostles and other sources contain several accounts of early Christians following this directive by engaging in individual conversations and mass sermons to spread the Good News. Evangelical Christians often use the term "witnessing" to mean discussing one's faith with another person with the intent of proselytism.
Most self-described Christian groups have organizations devoted to missionary work which in whole or in part includes proselytism of the non-religious and people of other faiths (including sometimes other variants of Christianity).
Some Christians define "proselytism" more narrowly as the attempt to convert people from one Christian tradition to another; those who use the term in this way generally view the practice as illegitimate and in contrast to evangelism, which is converting non-Christians to Christianity. An Eastern Orthodox writer, Stephen Methodius Hayes has written: "If people talk about the need for evangelism, they meet with the response, 'the Orthodox church does not proselytize' as if evangelizing and proselytism were the same thing." However the boundary varies from group to group. For instance the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly strongly condemned what it describes as Catholic proselytism of Orthodox Christians within Russia and has therefore opposed a Catholic construction project in an area of Russia where the Catholic community is small. The Catholic Church claims that it is supporting the existing Catholic community within Russia and is not proselytizing. Recently, the Balamand declaration on proselytism was released between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches.
Groups noted for proselytism include:
- Jehovah's Witnesses
- Jews for Jesus
- Roman Catholic
- Seventh-day Adventists
- Southern Baptist Convention
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Gideons International
Buddhism has historically been an actively proselytising faith, which spread mainly through monks and missionaries all over India, South Asia and Indo China.The Emperor Ashoka sent royal missionaries to various Kingdoms of South Asia with the message of the Dhamma of the Buddha even sending his son and daughter as missionaries to Sri Lanka. Even Today Buddhism is a growing religion in the West. The role of the bhantes and bhikkus monks for the spread of the message of Buddha and of the faith of Buddhism is crucial. Buddhism admits converts without any distinction of race,previous religion or gender and any adherent of Buddhism can at least theoretically aspire to reach the highest ecclesiastical offices or even attain the status of Buddha/Bodhi satva.
Hinduism, also known as Sanatan Dharma, is the world's oldest continuously practised religion. Classical Hinduism has no binding conversion/reconversion rituals prescribed and one is free to choose the Hindu religion if he/she wants to, or follow any philosophy or belief one fancies and worship any other god in a manner he/she deems fit.
The Arya Samaj movement of Hinduism aimed at stemming the increased conversions to Christianity in 19th century India. It was originally restricted to the reconversion of those Hindus who had, willingly or unwillingly embraced another religion and were now willing to return to the Hindu Fold.
There is a trend in certain areas of India to stop any apostasy from Hindu faith through social ostracism by fundamentalist Hindu political groups, and the reconverts are usually accepted back. Converts from Hinduism to the other religions are condemned because such conversions to Christianity includes material inducements and opportunities offered by foreign missionaries sponsored by Western Christian nations. Similarly any converts from Hinduism to Islam are rationalised to have converted basically to avail polygamy which, by Muslim Personal Law, is legal in India.
One group that takes in willing converts in Hinduism, but without calumniating other faiths, is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness also known as Hare Krishnas. Devotees of the Krishna Consciousness have no codified rituals of conversion, but promote recitation of the Hare Krishna mantra as a means to achieve a mature stage of love of God. ISKCON adherents view Krishna as the supreme deity that those of other faith traditions worship. A commonly accepted notion among Krisna Consciousness devotees is that ISKCON allows one to recognize the primacy of the supreme deity, Krishna, in the practices and traditions of other faiths. Krishna Consciousness promotes the concept of Sanatana-Dharma (Hinduism), the 'eternal law' that other faiths can uncover.
Mahavira (599-527 BC), the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, developed an early philosophy regarding relativism and subjectivism known as Anekantavada. As a result of this acceptance of alternate religious practices, the phenomenon of proselytisation is largely absent in these religions but not unknown.Converts are welcome to the Jain faith.
Sikhism is not a proselytizing religion, however, proselytism is largely discouraged "through force or inducement" out of the belief that each person has a fundamental right to practice their religion freely. Although Sikhs freely share their faith with others, offending other religions is against the tenets of Sikhism. Sikhism does not believe in conversion of any individual.
In Islam, (see dawah and Islamic missionary activity) inviting people to the religion is a meritorious activity. The Qur'an states "Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path." (Al-Baqarah, 2:256) which is taken by Muslim scholars that force is not to be used to convert someone to Islam.
Unlike in the Hellenistic era (Second Temple Judaism), in the modern era most branches of Judaism do not actively proselytize to non-Jews. Instead non-Jews are encouraged to follow Noahide Law, which is said to assure a place in the World to Come. Some groups, however, will encourage nonobservant Jews to be observant, such as Aish HaTorah or Chabad. Many branches of Judaism are open to the conversion of the non-Jewish spouses of already existing mixed marriages to convert to Judaism. Orthodox Judaism in theory, neither encourages or discourages conversion, however their standards for conversion can be very challenging but persistent and sincere requests for conversion are conducted.
Currently the Dor Deah branch of Orthodoxy is the only group known to actively encourage the proselytizing of Gentiles to Judaism. Today there is no official Dor Dai movement, but the term is used for individuals and synagogues within the Yemenite community (mostly in Israel) who share the original movement's perspectives.
Views on the propriety of different types of proselytism differ radically. Some feel that freedom of speech should have no limits and that virtually anyone, anywhere should have the right to talk about anything they see fit. Others see all sorts of proselytism as a nuisance and an intrusion and would like to see them restricted (either completely or to a limited arena). Thus, Prof. Natan Lerner of Tel Aviv University observes that the issue is one of a clash of rights—the perceived right of a person to express his or her views versus the perceived right of a person not to be exposed to views that he or she does not wish to hear.
Some don't mind preaching but are concerned if the speech is accompanied by material benefits (e.g., a soup kitchen that provides food, but only under the condition that the recipients listen to an evangelical discourse) or new converts are given material benefits not available to those who don't convert. Others are concerned if the preaching is aimed at children without the knowledge and consent of the parents.
Many religions, including Christianity and Islam, believe that their religion is the One true faith. Judaism discourages active proselytism and maintains an exclusivist doctrine on adherence while Christianity and Islam both doctrinally advocate active proselytism, while discouraging converts from maintaining multiple adherences or apostasy.
From a legal standpoint (international, as well the European Union, or nationally India, Canada and United States), there do appear to be certain criteria in distinguishing licit from illicit proselytism. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18 states,
- Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
- No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
- Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
- The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
The first amendments to the constitutions of United States and India, the European Union Charter of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide that all people have:
- the right to have religious beliefs (or to not have religious beliefs) (Freedom of Religion);
- the right to form organizations for the purpose of worship, as well as for promoting their cause (Freedom of Association); and
- the right to speak to others about their convictions, with the purpose of influencing the others. (Freedom of Speech).
By the same token, these very rights exercise a limiting influence on the freedoms of others. For instance, the right to have one's religious (or non-religious) beliefs presumably includes the right not to be coerced by the government into changing these beliefs by threats, discrimination, or similar inducements.
Proselytism is considered inappropriate, disrespectful, and offensive by some individuals. As such, it is not protected in certain environments open to the public or are owned privately: government buildings, public education (grade schools and college campuses), the workplace and private properties like ones' home or front yard. These environments, due to either their openness or privacy, are often where proselytism takes place and can come from a variety of sources depending on the environment (e.g., students or teachers in schools and colleges, coworkers or employers, office workers, family members, or neighbors in a community).
Limits on proselytism is a combination of what is considered legal (and this varies from country to country) and what is considered moral or respectful (and this varies from person to person).
Some countries such as Greece prohibited all proselytism until 1994 when Jehovah's Witnesses were legally recognized as a religion and allowed to preach. Some countries such as Morocco prohibit it except for Islam. Some restrict it in various ways such as prohibiting attempts to convert children or prohibit offering physical benefits to new converts.
Religious groups also draw lines between what they are willing to do or not do to convert people. For instance the Catholic Church in Ad Gentes states that "The Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles." The World Council of Churches in The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness states the following: (Note: this document uses proselytism in the negative sense only.)
19. Proselytism as described in this document stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:
- making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;
- comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;
- employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;
- using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;
- extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;
- 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.
References and sources
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