On Proselytizing

On Proselytizing


THE April 6, 2006, international section of the New York Times ran a Reuters release of the preceding day that was entitled “Algeria Forbids Efforts to Convert Its Muslims.”
The article reported that Algeria passed a law on March 20th that prohibited efforts to proselytize among its Muslim population and that instituted punishments of five years in prison and fines of $70 to $140 for those who transgressed this prohibition.  In explaining the perceived necessity for this law, Muhammad Aissa, Director of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, stated:  “...Christianity has also been used as a tool to destabilize the country during the last bloody decade.”

Only two days later, the New York Times printed another Reuters news release detailing a similar law that had been passed in Rajasthan, India.  This law, which had yet to be ratified by the governor, imposed a large fine and prison sentences of up to five years against those who sought to convert Hindus.  In explaining why this bill had passed the legislature, Reuters noted, “For decades, Hindu revivalists have accused Christian missionaries of bribing poor people to change their faith, an allegation Christians deny.”
Why would two such disparate areas as Muslim Algeria and Hindu Rajasthan, India, pass laws that infringe upon both freedom of speech and freedom of religion?  The sad truth is that there has been a long tradition of Christian missionary efforts being used for nefarious purposes over the centuries.

Throughout the 16th century, the Spanish Conquistadors in the New World were accompanied by Catholic priests.  These priest-missionaries to the Indians often proselytized by virtue of the Conquistadors’ force of arms.  In addition, they attempted to use Christianity to get the Indians passively to accept their fate as a newly enslaved people.  In a similar manner, Christian missionary efforts in the Americas to enslaved Africans, many of whom were Muslims, often proselytized by force and also pacified slaves into accepting their enslaved status.

More recently, serious allegations have been made against the non-profit Summer Institute of Languages (SIL International).  While often presenting academic credentials as a recorder and preserver of rare, lesser known languages, the SIL has been joined at the hip with the Wycliffe Bible Translators since the SIL’s inception in 1934.  Nonetheless, it has been alleged that the SIL frequently presented itself solely as a linguistic institute in order to provide cover for its mission of evangelizing among native peoples. 
Over the years, SIL has been accused of using its language and missionary work to displace native Indian tribes in South America from their traditional land—land rich in oil reserves coveted by American Big Oil.  For example, in his provocative Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins reported rumors of the SIL colluding with Big Oil to remove the Huarani Indians from their traditional stomping grounds in the Amazon basin.  Reportedly, SIL diligently lobbied the Huarani to leave their ancestral territory and move into what were in effect missionary reservations.  It was even rumored that when some Huarani refused to move, the SIL would first provide them with donated food that was laced with powerful laxatives and would then offer to treat the resulting diarrhea epidemic if the Indians would only accompany the SIL to their clinic in the missionary reservation.

Whatever the factual truth of such stories, all of which the SIL has denied, the SIL has a documented history of being banned by Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and Panama.  In addition, the SIL’s area of movement has been rigidly restricted in Columbia and Peru.  It should be noted that all of these countries are ostensibly Christian, and yet all felt the need to ban or restrict the SIL in its Christian proselytizing efforts.   

A second contemporary example may be found in the missionary work of the New Tribes Mission (NTM).  The NTM may ring a bell for some readers, because it was an organization that employed Martin and Gracia Burnham, the missionaries captured and held by the Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines a few years ago.  The NTM reportedly has 3,200 workers scattered across South America, West Africa, and Southeast Asia.

Within the last year, the NTM has been accused of occasionally working hand in glove with the CIA and with performing economic espionage for such business interests as General Dynamics and Westinghouse.  In a speech delivered on October 12, 2005, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela accused the NTM of being a “true imperialist infiltration” and a vehicle of “colonialism.”  Somewhat later, Vice President Rangel of Venezuela claimed to have intelligence reports documenting that some NTM workers were actually working for the CIA. 

The NTM has denied the accusations made against it.  Nonetheless, Venezuela banned the NTM from being in its tribal areas on November 14, 2005.  The ban went into effect on February 14, 2006.  Reportedly, the NTM has complied with this ban.

Compounding things even further is a story that came out of a missionary hospital in rural Punjab, Pakistan.  Reportedly, Muslim patients were being given placebos while being told to say Bismillah (In the name of Allah) before swallowing the placebos.  When the placebos inevitably were less than optimally effective, the Muslim patients were then given actual medication while a Christian attendant said, “In the name of Jesus.”  If accurate, this story indicates a horrendous violation of both medical and Christian ethics.
Perhaps the time has come for an interfaith meeting to define and ratify a code of ethics regarding proselytizing.  To start the process, let me list just a few examples of what might be in such a code.  (1) A missionary should always identify his actual religion accurately and never hide his own religious affiliation.  (2) Humanitarian services such as food, drink, shelter, medical care, etc. should be provided regardless of the religious affiliation of the recipients.  (3) Subterfuges such as those entailed in the story of placebo use in Pakistan should be banned.  (4) All missionaries should refrain from any affiliation, however tangential, with commercial, nationalistic, and governmental interests. 

(Dr. Dirks is the author of:  The Cross and the Crescent; Abraham: The Friend of God; Understanding Islam: A Guide for the Judaeo-Christian Reader; and The Abrahamic Faiths.  He is married to the co-editor of Islam Our Choice: Portraits of Modern American Women.  All five books are available by writing to .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  He is also a regular columnist for Daily Muslims at http://www.muslimsweekly.com/index.php?option=com_frontpage&Itemid=205 where this article originally appeared)