USCIRF is engaged in furthering Christian proselytisation in India – Arvind Sharma

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a U.S. federal government commission created by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.

Arvind SharmaThe U.S. federal government commission USCIRF is engaged in furthering Christian proselytisation by other means in India. – Prof. Arvind Sharma

The United States of America has an institution called the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was established in 1988. Its site describes its mission as follows: Advancing international freedom of religion or belief, by independently assessing and unflinchingly confronting threats to this fundamental right.

But have we paused to consider what we mean by religious freedom? We need to analyse the concept if we want to form a clear idea of what such an institution should be doing.

At one level the answer seems very straightforward: That religious freedom means the absence of religious persecution. When we identify a religious group targeted for discrimination on religious grounds, as when they are prevented from praying peacefully in their sacred places, or denied access to jobs on the basis of their religion and so on, especially if they are a minority, as is said to be the case with the Ahmaddiyas in Pakistan, or the Coptics in Egypt, then their religious freedom would be secured by the removal of such disabilities. The contours of the concept of religious freedom are thus not difficult to identify in cases involving gross discrimination. The Office should clearly be engaged in rectifying these situations with the resources at its command.

The moment we proceed beyond such clear-cut cases, however, the concept seems to become less evident. The right to propagate one’s religion is often axiomatically assumed to be part of religious freedom. Were then the Christians exercising their right to religious freedom—the right to freely propagate their religion—when aboriginal children were being put in residential schools? This example might make us feel a little awkward as an expression of religious freedom. And it should, because the rights of those who were being converted to Christianity were being compromised, although those who were doing the converting may have felt that these children were being saved from going to hell.

The point then is that the exercise of what the proselytising religion might consider is not just its right but its birthright—the right to convert others—may seriously compromise the religious freedom of others. The offending party, however, may not see it that way, when it sees itself as doing a spiritual favour to the aggrieved party! In other words, one needs to distinguish clearly between two meanings of the word conversion: (1) my right to change my religion, should I wish to do so, and (2) someone else’s right to ask me to change my religion. While my right to change my religion is virtually unqualified, the same may not be said of someone else’s right to ask me to change my religion, as the case of the residential schools illustrates. These schools were set up by the Catholic church in Canada and the US, for the forced assimilation of the children of native populations, who sometimes ended up in mass graves.

I have taken the example of the residential schools to highlight the point that a non- missionary religion is often at a disadvantage, when facing a missionary religion, as non-missionary religions like to play by different rules. The situation is further aggravated if the missionary religion has access to more resources, and even political power. What is significant for our discussion is the fact that the two kinds of religions operate with different concepts of religious freedom, when it comes to proselytisation. The missionary religions include this right in the definition of their religious freedom, and the non-missionary religions exclude it.

The discourse on religious freedom has been so completely dominated by the concept of religious freedom entertained by the missionary religions, that the position of the non-missionary religions in this respect has just not been taken into account, although many religions in the world are in fact basically non-missionary such as Judaism, Hinduism, Jainism, Sikhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Shinto, and the Primal Religions. These cover over a third of the globe’s population and are also represented in many multicultural societies. Clearly, therefore, any Office of Religious Freedom should be concerned with evolving an inclusive concept of religious freedom in which all religions could be stakeholders.

Let us now examine the concept of freedom a little more closely. At one end of the spectrum, it means absence of restrictions, as when I am free to move, when my movement is not restricted; at the other end, it means the enlargement of options, as when instead of offering five courses in a field a university offers ten and we are now free to take many more courses than we could earlier. Freedom of religion then could mean the minimisation of restrictions on the one hand, and the maximization of options on the other. Early in this piece we saw how one mission of the Office would be to remove the restrictions under which some religions, especially religious minorities could be functioning. The mission of the Office could similarly also be conceived in terms of maximising the religious options available, by promoting the study of world’s religions around the globe, sometimes referred to as the comparative study of religion. Once a student knows the basic principles of the world’s religions, they will then become live options, as live as one’s own religions, thereby enhancing religious freedom around the world.

The USCIRF is clearly not interested in promoting the concept of religious freedom as it has been developed here; it is rather engaged in furthering Christian proselytisation by other means.

Should the non-missionary religions get together and set up their own offices to monitor religious freedom, which will intervene when the non-missionary religions are prevented from exercising their religious freedom, by being made the objects of proselytisation? – Firstpost – 10 August 2022

› Prof. Dr. Arvind Sharma is the Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. He has also taught in Australia and the United States and at Nalanda University in India. He has published extensively in the fields of Indian religions and world religions.

Christianity in India (2007-2011)