Religious Freedom: Whose freedom is it? – Virendra Parekh

Virendra Parekh“The Church claims the right to freedom of religion, by which it means its own right to convert others, and never the other way round (recall its strong condemnation of Ghar Wapsi). Christian evangelical efforts in the world today constitute nothing less than an open declaration of war on other religions. What it forgets is that if missionaries have a right to preach the Gospel, ancient societies professing pacifist non-proselytising religions have a right to defend themselves.” – Virendra Parekh

Narendra ModiThanks, but no thanks. That would be the reaction of discerning missionaries to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much awaited intervention in the ongoing discourse on tolerance and religious freedom. He has obliged them at last, but with a twist which negates much of the favour.

On the face of it, it would be a matter of immense satisfaction to the Church that the political head of a non-Christian secular country attended a purely religious function (organised by the Church to celebrate the sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia) and spoke of ‘tolerance’, ‘freedom of faith’ and ‘the individual’s right to adopt the religion of his choice’.

The satisfaction was heightened by the context. Having availed of India’s hospitality for two days, the US President Barack Obama thought it fit and necessary to harangue us heathens on virtues of tolerance and religious freedom. “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines,” he intoned in Delhi.

The hypocrisy of this moral grandstanding was astounding. Obama’s remarks were made shortly before he flew to Saudi Arabia, a country which openly denies religious freedom in theory and practice. Pakistan routinely and systematically persecutes its Hindu and Christian minorities, but remains Obama’s frontline ally in the so-called war on terror and receives guns and dollars in large quantities. Yet “Nowhere is it more important to uphold religious freedom than in India.” Back home in Washington he bemoaned the “acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji.”

Obama also has a Christian agenda for South AsiaThe hand of the missionary network behind the remark was too obvious to be ignored. It was no coincidence that the US Commission for International Religious Freedom, which was instrumental in the blacklisting of Mr. Narendra Modi after the 2002 Gujarat violence and believes that religious freedom in India is comparable to that in Afghanistan and Turkey, welcomed the President’s remarks. As pointed out by Vamadeva Shasta [see comment below], Obama, like Bill Clinton before him, is connected to Southern Baptist groups who have global missionary networks, but would not mention this in public or condemn the bigotry of Southern Baptists, who would not accept the Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh paths as valid.

An editorial in The New York Times asked the prime minister to break his ‘deafening’ silence on religious intolerance.

And now Narendra Modi has spoken what was expected of him, but with important improvisation. For the missionaries, it is bad enough that he wants every Indian (and not just Hindus) to have equal respect for all religions. He appealed to ‘ALL’ religious groups (and not just Hindus) to act with restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation.

He went on to say “My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.” This reference to the right to adopt a religion of one’s choice is no doubt a big (and reckless) concession to the Abrahamic creeds. But there is a double qualification here. The right to retain one’s ancestral faith precedes the one to choose another; secondly, the change of religion has to be made ‘without coercion or undue influence’, if at all. The standard Hindu position is that we should stick to the tradition we are born into, while respecting and learning from other traditions. Modi went as close to that as possible under the Constitution.

But Hindu intellectuals and organisations need to go further.

They should ask bishops and maulavis whether they are prepared to extend the same tolerance to Hinduism and Hindus that they routinely expect from others as a matter of right. If they are, they should stop conversions and jihadi terrorism. If they are not, how can they expect tolerance from the Hindus?

Ram SwarupFor Abrahamic religions, religious tolerance and freedom of religion is a one-way street. According to World Christian Encyclopedia tolerance means that Christians should “show genuine religious tolerance to at other expressions of faith in Christ.” But so far as other, non-Christian religions are concerned, religious toleration “does not deny their convictions about Christ and his church or abandon proclamation, evangelism or conversion”. The Christians retain their right to “believe other religions false and inadequate” and to “attempt to win (adherents) to faith and Jesus Christ.” (The World Christian Encyclopaedia by David B Barrett OUP 1982 reviewed by Ram Swarup in The Times of India, July 14, 1985)

This view of religious tolerance and freedom of religion is implicitly accepted by the modern West in its dealings with other, especially eastern traditions. But they run into a big problem: How to sound liberal without ceasing to be. You scratch them a little and the old theology of Christian superiority shines forth undiminished.

In the last hundred years, western scholars have developed a new intellectual apparatus to attack non-Christian religions and gods. The language of this attack is not theological but psychological. Brazen attempts to subvert and destroy other traditions are paraded as right of the individual to practice a religion of his choice.

This touching concern for individual rights is a cloak for theological arrogance. In Christian theology, a pagan is more than just a nasty physical fact; essentially, he is a lost soul needing to be saved by Jesus and his Church missionaries. Thanks to the powerful Eleanor Roosevelt with the Spanish version of the Universal Declaration of Human Rightsmissionary lobby in the UN, its Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 states that every individual has a right to embrace the religion or belief of his choice. This has been interpreted as the right of the Church to seek converts among the world’s peoples without hindrance by whatever means and regardless of the consequences to the man and society. It has opened the doors for questionable proselytisation and conversion tactics with lethal consequences to native traditions across the world. The missionary apparatus is a real threat to the genuine freedom of faith.

The Church claims the right to freedom of religion, by which it means its own right to convert others, and never the other way round (recall its strong condemnation of Ghar Wapasi). Christian evangelical efforts in the world today constitute nothing less than an open declaration of war on other religions. What it forgets is that if missionaries have a right to preach the Gospel, ancient societies professing pacifist non-proselytising religions have a right to defend themselves.

Hindu organizations should work for a new and equitable definition of freedom of religion to end this theological warfare and bring peace among religions. The UN must recognize explicitly that countries, cultures and peoples of tolerant philosophies and religions who believe in live and let live too have a right of protection against aggressive, systematic proselytizing. The new charter will assert that an individual’s right to religious freedom includes the right to practice his faith in peace free from uninvited attacks upon his faith and family, and not to be forced to compromise his faith as price of accepting help in times of societal or personal upheaval.

M. K. GandhiThis is the view that Narendra Modi should articulate next time when he holds forth on freedom of religion. Most of the non-Christian world, targeted by the Church, will endorse this view. He could also share with his buddy Barack a few things Gandhiji said about the missionary activity and conversions.

In a note to a missionary, Dr. Thornton, Gandhiji wrote, “if the missionary friends will forget their mission viz. of proselytising Indians and of bringing Christ to them, they will do wonderfully good work. Your duty is done with the ulterior motive of proselytising. When I go to your institutions, I do not feel I am going to an Indian institution. This is what worries me.”

Gandhiji’s advice to the missionaries was five-fold. First, stop conversions altogether as “it is the deadliest poison that ever sapped the fountain of truth.” Second, if you must convert, direct your efforts to those who are in a position to assess these matters properly. Do not target the poor, the illiterate or the destitute. Third, even for that effort, it would be better for non-Indian missionaries to return to their countries and attend to problems there. Those problems are large enough to engage all the missionaries that can be made available there. Fourth, in doing any kind of work among people, compliment the faith of the people, do not undermine it. Do not denationalise them. Finally, instead of living the life of the Church, live the life of Jesus, of piety, of the Sermon on the Mount. Let that life, that example, persuade people to embrace Christianity if they will, not this salesmanship.

Like the Mahatma, many modern Hindus have wondered why the Church cannot emulate the example of the Ramakrishna Mission and make the tribal understand his own religion better. What is the need for introducing him to Christ, the Bible and Christianity when his own objects of devotion, veneration and spirituality can serve him equally well?

Like communists, the Church too has contributed a lot to the corruption of language, loading innocuous phrases with self-serving but sinister meanings and connotations. It is time to undo the damage not just to the language but also to the thought. That will be the beginning of real tolerance and freedom.

» Virendra Parekh and is a Senior Journalist in Mumbai, writing in English and Gujarati on nationalist, economic and political themes and issues. He is the Executive Editor of Corporate India.

Narendra Modi addressing at the National Celebration of the Elevation to Sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia, in New Delhi on 17 Feb 2015_

5 Responses

  1. Christians believe that all should have freedom of religion as long as they believe Jesus. But they don’t quite like it when Christians turn to other faiths. Which is really funny, since of the teachings of Jesus they always talk about is doing onto others as you would have them do onto you (the Golden Rule). The VHP actually followed Jesus teachings by reconverting using money.

    Hindus need to rearticulate their position on religious freedom since there seems to be much confusion. I just watched Rahul Eshwar blabber on Times news when questioned about the Mother Teresa controversy.

    Hindus need to state that while they respect other people’s rights to their own faith, any attempt to dispossess Hindus of their ancestral faith and culture will be seen as an act of unwarranted aggression and cultural genocide.

    According to the UN declaration of rights of Indigenous people, while
    the legal definition of genocide is left unspecific about the exact nature in which genocide is done only that it is destruction with intent to destroy a racial, religious, ethnic or national group as such.[7]

    Article 7 of a 1994 draft of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples uses the phrase “cultural genocide” but does not define what it means.[8] The complete article reads as follows:
    Indigenous peoples have the collective and individual right not to be subjected to ethnocide and cultural genocide, including prevention of and redress for: (a) Any action which has the aim or effect of depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples, or of their cultural values or ethnic identities;(b) Any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them of their lands, territories or resources;(c) Any form of population transfer which has the aim or effect of violating or undermining any of their rights;(d) Any form of assimilation or integration by other cultures or ways of life imposed on them by legislative, administrative or other measures;(e) Any form of propaganda directed against them. (Wikipedia)

    Hindus fall into category of unique indigenous people with their own distinct territory and cultural and ethnic identities.

  2. while pondering over the issue of religious freedom in india , i recall certain comments by s’ri k. harapriya :

    “I think it was Koenraad Elst who pointed out that the freedom of conversion argument is very much like telling tigers and lambs that they are equally free to attack or eat each other. Only one of them actually has the desire to attack and consume the other, while the other is left helpless with no protection. Just as there are laws to protect the environment there need to be Indian laws to protect indigenous religions against globalized personality cults.”

    further , he mused :
    “Don’t I,as a Hindu, have a right not to be preached to or pressured to change my faith? Shouldn’t freedom of religion include my right to be free of attempts to convert me?”

  3. President Obama Welcomes PM Modi’s Remarks on Religious Tolerance – NDTV – Press Trust of India – Washington – February 21, 2015

    WASHINGTON: United States President Barack Obama has welcomed the recent remarks of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in which he condemned religious-based violence and gave an assurance that his government will give equal respect to all religions.

    “The President welcomed Prime Minister Modi’s February 17 condemnation of religious-based violent acts, and his assurance that his government will give equal respect to all religions,” the White House said on its website yesterday in response to an online petition.

    Launched by the New York-based Sikh for Justice, the online petition had urged President Obama before his India trip to raise the issue of “Sikh Genocide” and “Sikhs’ Right to Self-determination” during his talks with PM Modi.

    The petition had attracted more than 125,000 signatures. The White House responded to the petition in less than a month after it was launched.

    Thanking those who signed the petition, the White House said during his recent trip to India, the President discussed the importance of religious freedom and tolerance in India on January 27 during his speech at Siri Fort in New Delhi.

    “President Obama underscored that India’s success depended on the nation not being ‘splintered along the lines of religious faith’,” it said.

    “As the President said in his January 27 speech, ‘In both our countries, in India and in America, our diversity is our strength’. We are committed to working with India to reaffirm this principle not just within our own countries but around the world,” the White House said.

    Commending President Obama’s principal stand on equal status to all religions, SFJ legal advisor Gurpatwant Singh Pannun said “The White House’s response to Sikh group’s petition is yet another reminder to Modi that India’s success depends on giving all religious communities freedom and right to profess, practice and propagate their faith without the fear of persecution”.

    While President Obama in his speech in India clearly affirmed the equal status for Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists in America, PM Modi in his February 17 response on religious tolerance failed to address the issue of Article 25(b) which labels ‘Sikhs’ as ‘Hindus’, Pannun said.

  4. If Hindus can be converted, they can certainly reconvert. The same is true of Buddhists and other non-proselytizing religions. Otherwise they will disappear.

    The US though a supposed secular state strongly defends Christians in any country of the world. But India has not been defending Hindus even in India.

    Hindus remain the target of a multinational multi-billion dollar missionary business.

    China and Islamic countries to not allow them in.

    For every dollar Hindu groups spend on reconversion efforts, missionaries will be spending a hundred fold.

    Missionary groups not only target India but native and non-Christian groups in Africa, Asia and Polynesia.

    They have an agenda to covert the entire world.

    Any Hindu in America knows that he and his children will be frequently targeted by missionary groups.

    Even in India it is more likely that a Hindu will be targeted by Christians for conversion than the other way around.

    Obama and Clinton are connected to Southern Baptist groups who have global missionary networks, but they will not mention this in public or condemn the bigotry of Southern Baptists, who would not accept the Hindu, Buddhist or Sikh paths as valid.

    Finally any religion which holds that they have an exclusive claim to Divine truth must be regarded as communal. They divide humanity into the two communities of the believers and the non-believers. They may have one God but they have two humanities, and even God has to condemn his own children.

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