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Does Protecting the Right to Proselytize Violate Religious Freedom?

By Ani Sarkissian


Last March the Religious Freedom Project at the Berkley Center for Religion, Development, and World Affairs published a series of short papers about proselytism in their publication Cornerstone. Each author was invited to respond to the following statement:

The Effects of Proselytism and Development in Pluralistic Societies

The relationship between religious proselytism and development is sharply contested. International covenants recognize that religious freedom includes rights to personal religious conversion and public religious witness. But critics claim that proselytism can violate the rights of affected communities to maintain their traditions and can sow division in fragile societies. Cornerstone asks writers to discuss the social, political, and economic consequences of proselytism.

Four of those responses are reposted this month in TIO as an introduction to a complicated interreligious subject, proselytism and religious freedom.

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One of the more complicated religious freedoms, the right to proselytize, has both supporters and detractors. Proselytism can be defined as the attempt to persuade another individual to change his or her religion.

According to data from the Pew Research Center, in 2013 33 percent of countries limited proselytization by all or some religious groups. In the same year, 20 percent of countries limited religious conversion, 43 percent restricted foreign missionaries, and 47 percent limited religious literature and broadcasting, all activities related to spreading religion.

Support for the freedom to proselytize comes from human rights-oriented perspectives that see it as a necessary component of religious practice. This viewpoint, outlined most succinctly in Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), states:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Conceived in this way, the right to change one’s religion is an individual one, though the practice of religion often occurs in the context of groups. The language of the UDHR set the stage for future debates over the place of proselytization in the list of rights that fall under the banner of religious freedom. 

Arguments for Restricting Proselytizing

Contemporary objections to the unfettered right to proselytize take four main forms. First are arguments that proselytization can be limited for the purpose of preserving social order. For instance, where competition between religious groups is hostile or there is a history of religious violence, restrictions on antagonistic groups being able to proselytize to each other may help to maintain societal harmony and prevent further conflict.

Second is the argument that restricting proselytization may be necessary to protect indigenous or endangered minorities. For states with groups that have managed to hold onto ancient religious practices or with minorities that are at risk, restricting proselytization to these groups may help to maintain their cultural integrity and prevent their extinction.

A third argument is that proselytization can (and should) be restricted if it is aimed at vulnerable populations or employs coercive tactics. For example, proselytization should not be directed at schoolchildren or prisoners, who may not be able to opt out of it. Moreover, proselytizers should not be able to use force, intimidation, threats, or material incentives to coerce individuals to change their religion.

Fourth, some states enforce religious law (such as Islamic sharia), with interpretations that require them to place restrictions on conversion and proselytization.

Given these different, but related, justifications for limiting the right to proselytize, how do we reconcile the position of proselytism in the corpus of religious freedom? There is general agreement that the right to proselytize can be limited in the event that deceptive or coercive methods are used to attempt to trick, threaten, or force individuals to change their religion. Many countries thus frame their proselytization legislation in language intended to prohibit these methods. For example, in 2012, Belgium passed an amendment to its criminal code providing special protection for “vulnerable persons” against physical or psychological abuse of weakness, a provision that could be used against religious groups determined to be engaging in aggressive proselytization. Yet such laws require the state (or an empowered body) to determine when proselytization is “aggressive.”

Individual Rights vs. Group Rights

Graphic: findsolution.co

Graphic: findsolution.co

There is less agreement on whether individual rights trump group rights with regard to the freedom to proselytize. On the one hand, the decision to follow a particular religion (or convert to a different one) is an individual one, necessitating protection of the individual right to practice, talk about, and even try to convince others to follow a particular religious tradition.

On the other hand, religious groups such as the titular Orthodox churches in post-communist Europe and Eurasia have made the claim that attempts by Western missionaries to convert their populations not only threaten their chances of survival after decades of harsh repression, but also constitute a belligerent attack on the traditional religions of the region. Referring to proselytization as “sheep stealing,” these churches point to the long tradition of Christianity in these regions and view conversion as a loss of cultural heritage and group identity. These claims are closely tied to nation-building efforts in the region and cannot be divorced from political considerations.

Finally, religious objections to proselytization raise the question of whether religious law trumps secular human rights law. One of the most common instances of this occurs with regard to Islam. Some Muslim objectors to proselytization argue that it violates the freedom of Muslims to follow the dictates of their religion, which prohibits apostasy. As a result, in 2013, at least 24 Muslim-majority states had laws or de facto prohibitions on proselytizing to Muslims and conversion away from Islam. While formally secular states also enforced restrictions on proselytization, religion tends be the most prevalent justification for it in contemporary states.

The various arguments converge around the following question:

If protecting a particular aspect of the religious freedom of one individual threatens the freedom of others to practice their religions, should it be protected?

Responses will vary depending on whether one prioritizes individual or group rights, the majority or minorities, or secular or religious law. Social scientists tend to refrain from engaging in such normative debates and instead focus on examining the implications of restrictions on religious freedom. In my research, I have found evidence that restricting proselytization is associated with less competitive elections and lower levels of civil and political rights more generally. In another study, Brian Grim has shown that restrictions on proselytization tend to encourage rather than discourage religious hostilities. By focusing on the empirical outcomes of proselytization, perhaps we can forward new justifications for its limitation or protection.

This article was originally published by the Berkley Center’s Crosscurrents.