Proselytism // is the act of attempting to convert people to another religion or opinion. The word proselytize is derived from the Greek language prefix προσ- (pros-, toward) and the verb ἔρχομαι (érchomai, to come) in the form of προσήλυτος (prosélytos, 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. Despite this, religion has grown "at least twice as fast as the population of almost every UN region" over the last century.
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 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 Spirit: 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. In 1993 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 a proselytising faith, which spread mainly through monks and missionaries all over India, South Asia and Indochina.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 or Bodhisattva. Some adherents of Nichiren Buddhism proselytise in a process called Shakubuku.
Hinduism lacks a proselytism tradition. Classical Hinduism represents diversity of views and theology. Its followers are free to follow any theistic, non-theistic or other ideas it discusses. Followers can pick or change to any philosophy or belief he or she fancies and worship any personal god or goddess in a manner they deem fit. In the modern era, religious conversion from and to Hinduism has been a controversial subject. Some state the concept of missionary activity and proselytism is anathema to the precepts of Hinduism.
The debate on proselytization and religious conversion between Christianity, Islam and Hinduism is more recent, and started in the 19th century. Religious leaders of some Hindu reform movements such as the Arya Samaj launched Shuddhi movement to proselytize and reconvert Muslims and Christians back to Hinduism, while those such as the Brahmo Samaj suggested Hinduism to be a non-missionary religion. All these sects of Hinduism have welcomed new members to their group, while other leaders of Hinduism's diverse schools have stated that given the intensive proselytization activities from missionary Islam and Christianity, this "there is no such thing as proselytism in Hinduism" view must be re-examined.
One group that takes in willing converts in Hinduism 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 and proselytism is largely discouraged "through force or inducement" out of the belief that each person has a fundamental right to practice their religion freely.
In Islam, 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 to mean that force is not to be used to convert someone to Islam. Muslims consider inviting others to Islam to be the mission originally carried out by the Prophets of Allah and is now a collective duty of Muslims. In the Qur'an Allah states: "Invite to the Way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them (non-believers) in ways that are best and most gracious; (leave judging them) for your Creator knows best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance." (An-Nahl: 125)
Unlike in the Hellenistic era (Second Temple Judaism), in the modern era Judaism does not proselytize non-Jews. Instead, non-Jews are encouraged to follow Noahide Law, which is said to assure a place in the world to come. However, some groups, such as Aish HaTorah or Chabad, encourage nonobservant Jews to be observant. 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 nor discourages conversion, however their standards for conversion can be very challenging but persistent and sincere requests for conversion are conducted.
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).
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."
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.
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