Proselytism and the Right to Change Religion

Chapter 17
Proselytism and the Right to Change Religion


Asher Maoz


Proselytism and the right to change religion are among the most controversial issues in the area of religious human rights. It is an aspect of the broader framework of freedom of religion. In international law the cornerstone of both freedom of religion and the right to change religion appears in Article 18 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which 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.


Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) likewise provides:


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.


Both documents do not define religion. Moreover, while freedom of thought, conscience and religion are being declared – in this order – the documents go on to elaborate on freedom of religion, this time linking it to freedom of belief. While providing and safeguarding the right to change one’s religion or belief the articles do not mention proselytism, evangelism or missionary activities. By adding the freedom of belief concept the drafters of the Declaration and the Covenant made clear that this freedom includes the concept of freedom from religion, freedom of belief being understood as encompassing ‘agnosticism, free thought, atheism and rationalism’.1 This same conclusion might be derived by simply taking into account the link between freedom of religion and freedom of thought and conscience.


The wording of these documents was carefully chosen and is an outcome of extensive deliberations.2 The difficulty to reach a consensus is a result of sharp controversies as to whether religious rights should be given an international status or be left to the individual states. This is a result of different religious approaches to the right to freedom of religion3 and to the right to change religion. The debate warms when it engages the right, or the absence of it, of proselytism. I will not deal here with ‘inward freedom of religion’4 or ‘inreach’,5 which in the case of Jews is ‘a method of gathering into the community those born of a Jewish mother who have strayed from halakha’.6 This may be regarded as a matter of freedom from religion or freedom of belief as distinguished from proselytism. However, it is not that simple. In the first place, this attitude works against changing religion or even relinquishing it. Furthermore, a person who was born into a religion or was baptized to it as an infant may not regard himself a member of that religion. Hence, from his or her point of view, this action would be tantamount to proselytism. This would be especially so when the concerned person is at the same time a member of another religion. In the case of Jews this issue might be further complicated by the unity of national and religious affiliation. In the case of Christians there are Evangelical Protestants who regard a person that leads a nominal Christian life ‘a legitimate object of evangelism – regardless of whether and where the person has been baptized’.7


Proselytizing has been defined as ‘postures taken by a group toward outsiders’.8 Johnson offers five categories of proselytism:


1. Openness to people who want to join the group;


2. Inviting and convincing others to join the group;


3. Seeking to turn others from their present allegiance because of the error of their position;


4. Reaching out to save others from the danger and evil that surrounds their present membership; and


5. Coercing others to accept membership in the group.9


Before attempting to locate the three monotheistic religions within these categories a few words of caution are warranted. First, we should refer to the dogmatic, rather than historical, doctrines of each religion. Second, while we speak about the monotheistic religions we must bear in mind that there may be different approaches within each religion. Moreover, there may be different organizational structures in each of them. Thus, we encounter several streams in contemporary Judaism, which may differ on these issues. In Islam we find several denominations, notably the Sunni and the Shi’a, with several legal traditions or branches within them. With regard to Christianity we find a plethora of Churches, which differ substantially from each other. Martin Marty mentions ‘about 25,000 separate Christian denominations worldwide and they present astonishing variety’.10 A further phenomenon we must bear in mind is that while in both Judaism and Islam a person acquires his or her religion by birth, in Christianity one joins a Church through baptism. Since in Islam the religion of the newborn is determined by the father’s religion, while in Judaism the decisive factor is the mother’s religious affiliation, it results in a child born to a Muslim father and a Jewish mother belonging to both religions. If the child is baptized he will be regarded as a member by all three faiths. Finally, by concentrating on the monotheistic religions, as most deliberations in international forums did, we fail to deal with a variety of other religions encompassing a large number of adherents.


If we try to place the three monotheistic religions on Johnson’s excelling ladder one might doubt whether Judaism could be included in it at all. Indeed, contemporary Judaism does accept converts from other faiths yet it does not seek them, nor does it demonstrate openness to welcoming them: ‘Jewish law imposes at least a minimal affirmative duty to push potential converts away’.11 Interestingly, Maimonides ruled that while the Torah and commandments of Israel cannot be coerced upon gentiles, ‘Moses our Master ordered, in the name of the Lord, to enforce all creatures on earth to accept all the commandments that were ordered to Noah, and whoever does not accept them will be put to death’.12


The attitude of both Islam and Christianity is totally different from that of Judaism. Both religions were from the very start ‘universal and world-conquering faiths, in which missionary work was a central and essential element’.13 The centrality of proselytizing appears in the New Testament. Jesus tells his 11 disciples:


Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.14


Christianity was indeed a proselytizing religion throughout the centuries. In spite of changes in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches’ policies, the phenomenon continues and has even intensified. This is a result of the vigorous practices of modern missionary Churches such as Jehovah’s Witnesses,15 Latter-day Saints16 and Seventh-Day Adventists.17


Turning to Islam, we are confronted with the following message: ‘Invite (all)18 to the Way of thy Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for thy Lord knoweth best, who have strayed from His Path, and who receive guidance’.19 In the story of the life of Mohammed we are told that he sent Khalid ibn al-Walid, to Najran, in north Yemen to the tribe of al-Harith ibn Ka’b with the following order:


Invite them to Islam three days before he attacked them. If they accepted then he was to accept it from them; and if they declined he was to fight them. So Khalid set out and came to them, and sent out riders in all directions inviting the people to Islam, saying, ‘If you accept Islam you will be safe’, so the men accepted Islam as they were invited.20


Though using the word ‘invitation’ in the Qur’ān, ‘Muslims, like Christians, can be aggressive proselytizers, by sword and persuasion alike’.21