Pope’s view on Proselytization and its relevance to Sri Lanka
Posted on May 23rd, 2023

Prof. N.A. de S. Amaratunga DSc

Pastor Jerome Fernando’s controversial methods adopted to spread his version of Christianity in Sri Lanka has raised a hornet’s nest and the president of the country has instructed the CID to investigate into the matter. In this context it may be vitally important to be aware of the opinion of the Head of the Catholic Church Pope Francis, the Representative of God on Earth, on the matter of religious proselytization. Pope’s views have to be considered against the backdrop of the situation in Europe and elsewhere too with regard to the people’s attitude to religion and proselytization.

Currently in Europe a cold war is brewing between the main stream Christian Church and other sects which are seen as unwelcome intrusion. In the last few years, animosity against evangelicals in Europe seems to be growing in the wake of the  suicides and homicides perpetrated by the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994 , which was a new religious movement based on a mixture of esoteric ideas and apocalyptic expectations. Consequently the French government passed an “anti-cult” law in 1999 officially labeling evangelical groups as cults and sects. In October 2002, Belarus passed a strict new law targeting evangelicals and other minority faiths. Other European countries where anti-cult laws are being drafted, include: Germany, Austria, Belgium, Netherlands, Romania, Portugal, Spain and a few others. In most of these countries, there are efforts to categorize evangelical churches as “cults” (Griffith, 2023).

Now let us see what Pope Francis has to say about proselytization. He had first spoken on this subject in 2019 and recently on the 18th of January 2023 he has said;

To evangelize is not to proselytize,” the Pope told crowds gathered in the Vatican for his weekly general audience. To proselytize is something pagan, it is neither religious nor evangelical.” This is not about proselytism, as I said, so that others become ‘one of us’ – no, this is not Christian,” he reiterated. It is about loving so that they might be happy children of God.” The Pope told a group of Christian high school students that they should respect people of other faiths and not attempt to convert them to Christianity, insisting we are not living in the times of the crusades.” Asked by one of the students how a Christian should treat people of other faiths, the pope said that we are all the same, all children of God” and that true disciples of Jesus do not proselytize. A Christian should never try to convince others of the truth of Christianity but should simply give a testimony of consistency and wait for others to ask about the faith, he proposed.

You must be consistent with your faith,” he said. It never occurred to me (and nor should it) to say to a boy or a girl: ‘You are Jewish, you are Muslim: come, be converted!’ You be consistent with your faith and that consistency is what will make you mature (AllSides, 2023).

It is highly significant that the Pope had said  we are not living in the times of crusades”. In fact he is calling for religious harmony and cordiality among different religious faiths. This is laudable and a display of true greatness.

Further evidence of the stand taken by the official church regarding unethical conversion is a document released by The World Council of Churches (2000) which is reproduced below. The World Council of Churches in The Challenge of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness states the following:

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. (WCC Publications, 2000)”.

The proselytizing cults that operate all over the world obviously must be employing such extreme means as mentioned above to achieve their ends which has become a matter of concern for the mainstream church. The danger of permitting religious cults to operate has been evident in many instances. For example Jonestown incident in 1978 where 918 people died due to the instruction of cult leader Jim Jones. The Solar Temple incident that resulted in mass suicide and homicide in France in 1994.  A Buddhist and Hindu cult Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Asahara used sarin to kill people in Tokyo in 1995. Sri Lanka had the horrible experience of Easter Sunday bombings perpetrated by an Islamic cult.

Further, the activities of the cult churches may have contributed to the decline of Christianity in Europe for these extremist religious beliefs and practices tend to take the believer into the Dark Ages of the 5th to the 14th CE where scientific inquiry and intellectual activity was discouraged. According to the most recent Pew poll, only 71 percent of Europeans still identify as Christian, though 81 percent were raised in the faith. Most are non-practicing. Among the young, the situation is worse. About 60% to 70% percent of young Europeans aged 16–29 identify with no religion, according to a St. Mary University study.

The proselytizing groups active in Sri Lanka may be employing different techniques to lure different categories of people. Superstitious inclinations of our leading politicians and their propensity to the occult, yanthra, manthra and gurukan”  are well known and that therefore they could be easy prey to the promise of miracles in the Miracle Dome”, including political victories, is not difficult to immagine. Similarly the ambitions of other prominent leaders in various fields would be the psychological bait for trapping them into the net of the Prophet”.  Promise of miraculous cure of incurable diseases would be another ploy that may be used by clever proselytizers and even the educated rich people may not mind trying out these measures marketted by a glib preacher”. How the Prophet” amasses wealth is not difficult to understand. What a disrepute and shame on Jesus Christ and his great religion.

It is time for the leaders of all religions to come together and fight this menace. The Government has to be pressured to take effective and tangible action to combat this evil before it leads to religious conflict and violence for extremism begets extremism as we know by experience in Sri Lanka.

Prof. N.A. de S. Amaratunga DSc

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