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Religion as convertible currency

Religion as convertible currency

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: The Pioneer
Date: August 22, 2006

Archbishop Mar Varkey Vithayathil recently startled India's intellectual elite with his call for more babies to arrest the decline of Kerala's Catholic community. Perturbed at the toll taken by abortion and the small family norm on the Syro-Malabar Church, he insisted the burgeoning national population is no problem and that the State should not try to curb family size.

Kerala's rich and large Christian community constitutes nearly 20 percent of the votebank, and the Archbishop's call is intensely political. It is reportedly inspired by the fear that the Sons of Ismail may soon surpass the Sons of Isaac in god's own country. In the monotheistic world, allegiance to the Abrahamic cult is not enough; what matters is sectarian affiliation. Naturally our secular media, a subordinate ally of the Church, spared the Archbishop the encomiums heaped upon RSS chief KS Sudarshan last year when he asked Hindu families to have at least three children.

Kerala's Christian population registered a 22.6 percent growth rate in the decade 1991-2001. Christianity's second highest growth rate was in Gujarat, nearly 56 percent, and Mr. Narendra Modi's sympathy for Hindu alarm in the matter explains the antipathy towards him. Ms. Sonia Gandhi's ascent as UPA supremo, coupled with America's muscular espousal of evangelism, has given the Christian community the daring to make Governor Balram Jakhar stall amendments to the Madhya Pradesh Freedom of Religion Act, 2006, which require church officials to pre-notify district authorities before conducting conversions, thus effectively restraining them. Evangelical anger is growing as Chattisgarh has also moved to toughen conversion by force or allurement, while exempting those returning to their natal faith from the ambit of 'conversion'.

It needs to be stated unequivocally that proselytisation has nothing to do with freedom of religion, conscience, or choice. Like the so-called borderless terrorism plaguing the world, evangelists have territorial ambitions, which they seek to fulfill through domination and control of the human mind and body. Akin to the autonomous jihadi cells, evangelists have a grand design, an international network, and an overarching high command. At least since 1974, the blueprint to evangelize the non-Christian world, known as the Joshua Project, has been conducted under the auspices of the International Congress on World Evangelization (ICWE). The international network is funded and controlled by Western Christian nations, led by the United States, and is typically insensitive to the physical and emotional violence inflicted on the poor and defenseless when free food, medical aid, money, employment, or outright violence are used to compel conversions.

Prof. Arvind Sharma has often argued that the academic discourse on conversions is biased in favour of faiths that convert, as opposed to those that do not. Hindu dharma and the Hindu people respect the religious freedom and choices of non-Hindus. Yet they are subjected to the depredations of theologies committed to their own annihilation through conversions. This, as Swami Dayanand Saraswati contends, is a conscious aggressive intrusion into the religious life of the individual, into his religious core.

Worse, the clan and community of the converted person are deeply wounded. In fact, the convert himself suffers secret hurt, wondering if he has acted correctly in alienating himself from the community to which he belonged for generations, thus sundering ties with his ancestors. Religious conversion is violence; that is why it breeds communal violence. In the Hindu tradition, religion and culture are inseparable and hence the loss of religion invariably amounts to loss of cultural heritage. This can be readily seen in the case of the Greek, Mayan, Roman and other civilizations lost to the sword of Christian soldiers.

Ironically, protests against conversions are dubbed as persecution or the denial of religious freedom. This untruth veils the fact that the intended victim of the evangelist is being denied the freedom to observe his natal faith without physical or cultural assault. It is in fact an intentional insult to the faith sought to be annihilated, and is a cognizable offence. In no civilized society is freedom of religion co-terminus with a planned programme of conversion.

In the post-World War II era, evangelists have benefited from Article 18 of the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which permits violence against human dignity, reason and conscience, and violates the fundamental declaration in Article 1 that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. Since its adoption in December 1948, the UDHR has been perceived as a Christian-centric text with pretensions to universalism. It is, in a sense, the twentieth century version of Emperor Akbar's Islam-centric Din-i-Ilahi, a high-sounding doctrine that failed to make the grade with his Hindu courtiers and subjects.

The world needs a genuine Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Religious scholars at McGill University have made a credible effort to prepare a wholistic document titled, Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the World's Religions, which is now set to be discussed at the forthcoming global congress on World's Religions after September 11 at Montreal (September 11-15, 2006).

Some clauses are exemplary, such as "Everyone has the right to freedom from violence, in any of its forms, individual or collective; whether based on race, religion, gender, caste or class, or arising from any other cause" (Article 2). Interestingly, Article 9 (1) equates proselytisation against the will of a person with arbitrary detention. There is also the right "not to have one's religion denigrated in the media or the academia" (Article 12, 4), along with the corresponding duty of adherents of every religion to ensure that no religion is so denigrated (Article 12, 5).

Article 18 (1) explicitly bars compulsion in religion, giving everyone the right to retain his religion or change it (2). The right to retain one's religion has thus for the first time been brought into the international arena on an equal footing with the freedom to change one's faith. Finally, the document enshrines the right to protect one's cultural heritage and accords world heritage status to everyone's cultural heritage (Article 27, 3).

If adopted by the UN, this document could mitigate the burgeoning civilizational strife and blunt conversion as a foreign policy tool of many Western nations. It could facilitate respect for the natural geographical borders of myriad faiths, and check the expansionist drives of crusading monotheisms.

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