Legitimate Proselytism and Illegitimate Proselytism
Flaws in our legal arsenal constitute a fertile breeding ground for sects and associated bodies.
— S. Modeliar
It is reported that on 14 March a group of persons at Triolet expressed their disapproval of a gathering being hosted by Light Ministries International. The protesters allegedly were not aware that the gathering was a religious one. Slogans Go Home as reported in the press was heard. The situation was considered serious enough to warrant the presence of the Special Support Unit of the police.
That incident brings in sharp focus religious freedom and the freedom to preach the virtues of one’s religion. The inhabitants of Triolet had no right to protest against a peaceful religious gathering. But if they felt that the gathering was an attempt at brainwashing people who are already following a particular religion then other considerations, both moral and legal arise.
What does Light Ministries International stand for and do? On a website one can read the following about that organisation: “Source of Light Ministries International Inc. has a unique place among missions. Having begun over a half century ago as the result of an evangelistic effort on the small island of Jamaica, SLM now reaches around the world with the good news of salvation through its Christ-centered Bible lessons. The mission is a publishing house, a sending agency, a supportive resource for national ministries and a partner with many of the leading mission agencies of our time as we provide the Tools to Finish the Task. We invite you to learn more about Source of Light Ministries International Inc. and become a part of what God is doing throughout the world. Visit About Us and learn who we are. Visit our Regions of Outreach and discover where we are working and the dramatic things that are happening.”
Light Ministries International like many other organisations based or allowed to function in Mauritius is a religious body that preaches the wisdom of its mission and the virtues of its beliefs to people. How people rally and espouse these beliefs is no doubt through preaching. But where does preaching stop and brainwashing start? What is the yardstick that should be used to evaluate whether proselytism is being used in such gatherings to convert people? From the Wikipedia Encyclopedia we read the following about proselytism:
“Proselytizing is the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion. The word proselytize is derived ultimately from the Greek language prefix ‘πρός’ (toward) and the verb ‘έρχομαι’ (I come). Historically in the Koine Greek Septuagint and New Testament, the word proselyte denoted a gentile who was considering conversion to Judaism. Though the word proselytism originally referred to Early Christianity (and earlier God fearers), it is also used to refer to other religions’ attempts to convert people to their beliefs or even any attempt to convert people to another point of view, religious or not. Today, the connotations of proselytizing are often negative and the word is commonly used to describe attempts to force people to convert.”
Our Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience. Section 3 of the Constitution reads: “It is hereby recognised and declared that in Mauritius there have existed and shall continue to exist without discrimination by reason of race, place of origin, political opinions, colour, creed or sex, but subject to respect for the rights and freedoms of others and for the public interest, each and all of the following human rights and fundamental freedoms – 1. the right of the individual to life, liberty, security of the person and the protection of the law; 2. freedom of conscience, of expression, of assembly and association and freedom to establish schools.”
Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which Mauritius is a party states:
“1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
“2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
“3. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.”
Our Constitution does not contain provisions similar to Article 18.2 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. This may the reason why many people change their religion and go and listen to the preachers belonging to many organizations some of which have been labelled sects. We have witnessed recently the saga involving the Mission Salut et Guérison concerning Hayley Goddard and the “Group of Concerned Parents” in South Africa about how children are being allegedly brainwashed by that sect. A big fuss was made about this and it was believed that the government would embark on a national inquiry on the activities of such organizations. But after loud labour pains the mountain gave birth to only a mouse. This is Mauritius.
We should not close our eyes to a very common practice in Mauritius whereby people knock at the door of others often at absurd times to give them leaflets about a particular sect or belief and to try to impose upon these people their own beliefs. If that is not an attempt at forced conversion, what is. The difference between legitimate proselytism and illegitimate proselytism is not capable of precise definition but what some persons consider legitimate may be considered illegitimate by others. The purpose of such practices is to force the listener to adopt new religious beliefs that differ from the listener’s beliefs. In such a way the organisation or sect increases its own following and popularity as a respectable institution.
The more the authorities close their eyes on the activities of such organisations the more likely it is that incidents like the one in Triolet may occur again. The people cannot be fooled all the time. There is a generalized feeling now that the freedom of conscience without a clear provision against coercion to adopt another religion or a variant of it cannot be tolerated anymore. Many international reports on Mauritius state that there is no forced conversion in Mauritius. This is sheer cosmetics. The reality is different.
Forced conversion is not only the use of threats or force. It also consists in luring people to a better life by the use of money and amenities or by the use of honeyed words. We should recall how many people have been killed or led to suicide by sects across the world. A few years ago the Freedom of Religious Conversion Bill, curbing religious conversion was passed without debate in the legislative assembly of the state of Gujarat. The legislation provides for three years’ imprisonment and a fine for religious conversion by force or by lure. AFRIK.com reports on 16 March that on 12 March this year Morocco expelled sixteen Christian workers accused of religious proselytism.
If the present situation is allowed to endure, it might erupt on some uncontrollable social situation. The government should realise that very often prevention is better than cure. The sooner section 3.2 of our Constitution is amended to prohibit forced conversion by any means, the healthier it will be for our society. This will also be a means of controlling the arrival, stay and activities of organisations that have as their mission the rallying to their beliefs people of other religion.
If freedom for the rights of others is to have any meaning, it should start in pumping some common sense in the minds of those who are bent on using proselytism to achieve their ends in defiance of the freedom of others. The flaw in our legal arsenal constitutes a fertile breeding ground for the sects and associated bodies.
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