By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission
Special to ASSIST News Service
AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- Lack of religious freedom has always been an issue in Islam; however, the advance of the Islamic renewal movement and Islamic militancy has accentuated this. The rise of Hindutva over the past decade now extends to alleged government complicity in religious violence, and, in parts of India, anti-conversion legislation. Likewise the rise of Buddhist nationalism and militancy, which has lead to increased persecution, may soon extend to anti-conversion legislation being introduced in Sri Lanka.
On top of this there is the rise of Orthodox nationalism in some parts of Eastern Europe that is seeing increased hostility demonstrated towards the non-Orthodox, and the threat from the Government of Israel to make Israel a "Jewish Democracy" with increasing proposed restrictions on non-Jews living in the land.
What is most surprising is that religious freedom is being denigrated in the West by people who enjoy it, expect it as their right and take it for granted.
A NEGATIVE PERSPECTIVE
An article printed in the New York Times on 31 December 2002 entitled "With Missionaries Spreading, Muslims' Anger is Following" By Susan Sachs, was written in response to the murder of three Christian workers in the Jibla Baptist Hospital in Yemen.
Sachs says, as "evangelical Christian emissaries" have spread throughout the world they have provoked anger. She cites the shooting murders of Bonnie Penner Weatherall in Lebanon (Nov 2002) and Dr. Martha Myers, William Koehn, Kathleen Gariety in Yemen (Dec 2002) and the burning of Graham, Philip and Timothy Stains in India (Jan 1999), as examples.
Sachs displays little sympathy and goes on to say, "Christian missionaries have been active across much of the Muslim Middle East for hundreds of years, at least as far back as the Crusades." In this one sentence that reeks of ignorance, she establishes Christians in the minds of her readers as white, aggressive, foreign invaders. Is she really ignorant of the fact that Christianity originated IN and spread FROM the Middle East in the first century
AD or is this deliberate and provocative anti-Christian disinformation?
Sachs also notes, "But successive generations of missionaries found that proselytizing to Muslims was a dangerous business. Under Muslim law, conversion from Islam is punishable by death." Yet she states this with absolutely NO judgment, as if it is merely an acceptable cultural practice that should be respected, not a shocking breach of fundamental human rights.
Sachs, who refers to the Southern Baptist Convention as "a proselytising sect", then and paints a picture of Christian workers ("missionaries") as those who use allurement and even deception to ensnare and convert children, the sick and the poor, with a total disregard for the law of the land.
A POSITIVE PERSPECTIVE
The very next day, however, the New York Times printed an article from Jibla, Yemen, that gave a totally different perspective. Associated Press writer Salah Nasrawi writes from Jibla, "For many here, the American missionaries at a Baptist hospital here were not seen as Christian intruders in a Muslim land, but as friends to the residents of this poor town in the rugged hills of southern Yemen"
Nasrawi then relays testimonies from among the numerous Yemenis grieving the loss of their dear friends who delivered their babies, treated their ills and visited profusely. (Link 1 - a must read!)
RELIGIOUS LIBERTY UNDER ATTACK
Sachs' disdain for slain "missionaries" issue reminds me of a comment by Kate Clark, correspondent in Afghanistan for the BBC at the time of the arrest of the eight foreign Shelter Now aid workers. Kate Clark comments in a 25 August 2001 article entitled "Modernmissionaries", that both Islam and Christianity are "proselytizing faiths". She then gives an account of the pressure that was put on her to convert to Islam while she was working in the Middle East.
Clark however, is unruffled and non-judgmental. As someone who clearly understands, accepts and respects the principal of religious freedom, Clark has no qualms about proselytizing. She appears to respect the believer's right to exercise their religion, knowing she is free to accept or reject it.
However, in regards to Christian proselytism and the Western reaction towards the arrest of the Shelter Now workers she notes, "What's ironic is how little sympathy any potential Christian missionary receives in the West in the year 2001. Generally, it seems that if the Shelter Now employees had been arrested for being gay or trying to improve women's lives - like carrying out clandestine literacy classes - there would be far more outrage at their arrests." (Link 2 - another must read!)
There is little doubt that the issue of religious liberty will play an increasingly significant role in domestic and international politics in 2003 and beyond. It will be interesting to see how the Western world, with its rich Christian heritage and ethic, manages to defend religious liberty now it so "enlightened" and driven by secularism.
As Johannes Aagaard wrote in 1982, "The days of 'missio triumfans' have passed and the days of 'missio pressa' have come." (footnote 1). Philip Jenkins, in his book, "The next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity", suggests that a future Christendom may define itself not by ideological harmony or by political alliances, but simply along the lines of "its unity against a common outside threat" (footnote 2). Maybe the Church is truly coming full-circle.
Welcome to 2003.
1. Washington Post (also printed in New York Times) "Yemeni Town Mourns U.S. Missionaries", by Salah Nasrawi; Associated Press Writer. 31 December 2002.
BBC News Online; "Modern missionaries", Kate Clark, 25 August 2001 UK
1. Quote from page 61,"Believing in the Future: Towards a Missiology of Western Culture." By David J. Bosch, Trinity Press International; 1995. Bosch quotes Aagaard's "The Soft Age Has Gone." 1982
2. Quote from page 190, "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity." By Philip Jenkins, Oxford University Press 2002