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Christian Proselytisation Among Muslims
Yoginder Sikand


Recent reports of Christian missionaries reaping a harvest of over ten thousand Muslim converts in Kashmir, and of American Christian organizations following close on the heels of US forces in southern Iraq, spreading their faith while at the same time appearing to be distributing relief to the hapless victims of American terror, point to the continued vexed issue of Christian missionary work among Muslim peoples. 

If you thought that aggressive Christian proselytisation was a thing of the West’s colonial past, then think again. Today, the devout, practicing Christian might be a near extinct species in the West, which, for all practical purposes, is now a post-Christian society. But all over the so-called ‘Third World’ scores of Christian fundamentalist evangelist groups, liberally funded by Western donors, are actively engaged in what they see as a spiritual crusade against the Devil and his minions, by which they mean all non-Christian faiths and their adherents. Convinced that Jesus (sws) alone is the way to salvation, they represent the contemporary face of the historical nexus between establishment Christianity and European imperialism.

For fundamentalist Christian evangelists, the Muslim world represents the single most impermeable frontier, a major stumbling block in their ambitious plans of global hegemony. For centuries, Christian missionaries have sought to work among Muslims to win them to their faith, but have registered little success. Yet, even today, numerous Christian organizations, Catholic as well as Protestant, are actively engaged in missionary work among Muslim peoples, although under various guises.

Recent developments in Christian theology indicate a deliberate effort to fashion new ways of presenting the faith before non-Christians in order to make it more appealing and less culturally alienating. Conscious of its association with European colonialism, which sharply limited its appeal in post-colonial societies in Africa and Asia, the Church has sought to revise the external trappings of its theology and the forms in which it is expressed—what is fashionably called ‘inculturation’ in Christian theological parlance. Thus, for instance, in several churches in South India, Mary is decked up in a sari and Jesus (sws) draped in a dhoti; Church services sometimes begin with Vedic verses and Catholic sadhus dress like Hindu mendicants and train in yogic disciplines. In some Muslim countries, Christian missionaries dress like Muslim Sufis, ‘go native’ and adopt the local culture, and even use verses from the Qur’ān in their prayers. In Delhi, a Christian group has set up a Christian qawwālī team, which sings Christian hymns in traditional Sufi style. Another group of missionaries are said to have started an ‘Īsā’ī Tablīghī Jamā‘at’, using the same practices and methods as their Muslim counterpart. A Protestant group is said to operate the ‘Madrasatu’l-Masīh’ in Bangalore, where Urdu and the Bible are taught to Muslim children from destitute families. On a visit to Kashmir, some years ago, I came across a church shaped like a mosque, with a board outside announcing ‘Baytu’l-Masīh’, a clearly deliberate effort to be more acceptable and inviting for the locals. I could cite several more examples, but the point is clear: advocates of inculturation hope to be able to give Christianity a new look, making it seem somehow more familiar, less alien and, therefore, less difficult for a potential convert to take the momentous decision to adopt it.

Another related development in recent Christian thinking and praxis is the active involvement of Christian priests and laity in inter-religious dialogue work. Unsuspecting non-Christians might see this as a generous ecumenism and a major departure from the Church’s traditional hostility towards other religions. Yet, as even a cursory examination of the statements and encyclicals issued by the Church authorities reveals, inter-faith dialogue is regarded by the Church as primarily a tool for its evangelistic task. It is recognized that only by establishing friendly relations with people of other faiths and knowing about their religions can one present before them the Christian message. Hence, the inseparable link between Christian dialogue and mission. As the Patna Declaration of the All-India Consultation on Evangelization declared: ‘Far from lessening evangelical zeal, it [dialogue] makes the task of evangelization more inspiring and meaningful’. It went on to stress the need for dialogue with Muslims in India, but in the same breath appealed for ‘an adequate number of evangelical workers’ to preach Christianity to them (quoted in ‘The New Leader’, October, 1973). Echoing the same view were a group of missionaries working among Muslims in various Arab countries attending the ‘Conference on Literature, Correspondence Courses and Broadcasting in the Arab World’, all of which aimed at ‘Communicating the Gospel to the Muslim’ in Beirut in 1969. They appealed for the need for building bridges between Muslims and Christians through inter-faith dialogue, for only in that way, they insisted, could the Muslims be brought closer to Christianity, or at least be encouraged to give its missionary advocates a patient listening. 

Catholic clergy often point to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) as ‘proof’ that the Church has finally renounced its imperialistic claims over other faiths and their adherents and has ushered in a new dawn of peaceful inter-religious relations. Yet, as Sebastian Kim argues in his recent book ‘In Search of Identity: Debates in Religious Conversion in India’ (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2003), Vatican II’s stand on people of other religious communities was ‘ambiguous’. In fact, Kim tells us, the much-touted Vatican II reaffirmed the traditional doctrine that ‘it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone, which is the universal help towards salvation, that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained’. Hence, Vatican II insisted, everyone ‘ought to be converted to Christ’.

Despite the increasingly loud rhetoric of disinterested dialogue emanating from the managers of the Church, the missionary enterprise still retains the central task of the Church. Some years ago, a group of what are called Catholic charismatics launched the global ‘Evangelization 2000’ project, in order to mobilize Christians to Christianize all humanity by the year 2000, this being said to be ‘the best birthday gift for Jesus’. In a similar vein, the Vatican’s official encyclical ‘Redemptoris Mission’, issued in 1990, called in no uncertain terms for conversions, stressing the ‘urgency of missionary activity’ as the millennium drew near. It lay down that it was the ‘supreme duty’ of all Christians to ‘proclaim Christ to all people’, on the alleged grounds that ‘Christ is the one savior of all, the only one able to reveal God and lead to God’. It reiterated the traditional Catholic imperialistic claim that ‘salvation can only come from Jesus Christ’, because ‘in him, and only in him, are we set free from all alienation and doubt, from slavery to the power of sin and death’.

As the millennium drew closer, Christian missionaries began making frantic efforts to spread what they see as the ‘Good News’, hoping and praying for an abundant flood of converts. However, Asia, with its overwhelmingly Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist population, was seen as a major stumbling block to Christianity’s global sway. Hence, it emerged as a particularly important target for various missionary outfits. None less than the Pope himself is said to have blessed the venture when in his statement titled ‘Ecclesia in Asia’ he declared ‘…just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soul of Europe, and in the second on that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent [Asia]’. In the same statement he stressed that Catholic evangelical work was an ‘absolute priority’, because Christ, he declared, ‘is the one Mediator between God and Man, and the sole Redeemer of the World’. This clearly suggested to the perspicacious that the Church’s commitment to genuine, disinterested inter-faith dialogue was itself seriously questionable, to say the least. Those who concluded that ‘dialogue’ was simply yet another clever missionary tactic were not widely off the mark, for as the Pope went on to add, although the Church respected what it saw as good in other faiths, the values that they contain ‘await their fulfillment in Jesus Christ’. Hence, he insisted, while the Church should not stay away from dialogue with other faiths, it must remain faithful to its missionary mandate of ‘the proclamation of Jesus Christ, true God and true Man, the one and only Savior for all peoples’.

Although both the Catholic Church and the various Protestant denominations share the same missionary agenda—of preaching Christianity to the ends of the world—they differ in matters of methods and strategies. Generally, the Catholics appear to be more accommodative towards other faiths, this itself being a marked departure from past precedent. On the other hand, several Protestant fundamentalist groups, many of them based in the United States, unabashedly denigrate other faiths as Satanic, and see themselves as leading God’s army against the forces of devilish falsehood that other faiths are said to represent.

Such Protestant groups are active in India as well as in several Muslim countries. Some of them specialize in missionary work among Muslim peoples, and have established a wide network of missionaries specially trained for this difficult task. They have also developed an extensive corpus of missionary literature, calculated to denigrate Islam and to proclaim the superiority of their own version of Christianity. One such organization is the Austria-based ‘Light of Life’ Society, which has produced a number of books, mostly penned by a certain ‘Abdu’l-Masīh, aiming to ‘prove’ that the Prophet Muhammad (sws) was an imposter who invented a violent religion to serve his own lust. Its books, which are easily available at Christian evangelical bookstores in India, are replete with the worst sorts of clichéd orientalist barbs about Islam. ‘Abdu’l-Masīh, for one, is confident that, along with all other non-Christians, Muslims labor under terrible ‘spiritual bondage’, and are destined to hell if they do not accept ‘Jesus as God’. He condemns Islam as an ‘anti-Christian’ force, going to the extent of claiming that ‘the spirit of Islam unmasks itself in the fact that it legalizes lying’. As for the Prophet (sws), he spares no effort to depict him in the most lurid terms possible. ‘Mohammad ordered a violent and murderous type of mission’, he claims (‘Abdu’l-Masīh, ‘The Main Challenges for Committed Christians in Serving Muslims’, Life of Life, Villach, Austria, 1996). In another book, ‘Abdu’l-Masīh cautions that Muslims are allegedly plotting to set up a global Islamic empire that would spell doom for Christianity. Hence, Christian missionaries must double up their efforts to bring Muslims into the Christian fold before it is too late (‘Abdu’l-Masīh, ‘Is An Islamic World Empire Imminent?, Light of Life, 1994). A similar appeal is issued by the Chennai-based Bible League, which repeats some of ‘Abdu’l-Masīh’s accusations against Islam (‘Islam is a religion based in self-righteousness’; ‘The only sure way to Paradise is to die as a martyr during an Islamic holy war, jihad’; Allah ‘judges according to His will rather than on justice’, etc..). Because it is convinced that its version of Christianity alone is the truth, it appeals for the setting up of a church in every ‘unreached people group’ (a more ‘politically correct’ equivalent for the once fashionable term ‘benighted heathen’). The League has prepared a detailed list of such Muslim (and Hindu) groups in India, complete with population tables, population distribution patterns, caste and ethnic divisions. It hopes to see mission stations set up in each group, so that the group as a whole, rather than scattered individuals, goes over to Christianity (Tony Hilton, ‘Muslims in India’, People India, Bible League, Chennai, 1999).

This is not, of course, to paint all Christian groups working among Muslims with the same brush, for among them are some which might genuinely have no hidden agenda of any sort. Every religious community does, of course, have the right to preach and propagate its own faith, and this is as it indeed should be. My point, and the burden of this article, is that all missionary activities must be regulated by a set of ethical principles that all groups abide by and which can be enforced by the law. In no case should monetary incentives be offered as a price for conversion, which actually seems to have been the situation in the case of several conversions to Christianity in Kashmir, for instance. The temptation to denigrate other faiths by attributing to them aspects that its own followers would refuse to recognize must also be constantly guarded against. Let the followers of all faiths bloom, to paraphrase Mao, but let this be done in a spirit of mutual respect.

Recent newspaper reports speak of alarmingly large-scale conversions to Christianity among impoverished Muslims in the Kashmir valley. According to an investigative story published in the ‘Indian Express’ early this April, some 10,000 Kashmiri Muslims are said to have converted to Christianity in the last ten years, a period in which the valley has witnessed unrelenting violence and destruction. The report suggests that ultra-conservative Protestant Christian evangelist groups, many of them generously funded by wealthy American and Western European Christian foundations, have been actively working in the region in recent years. Providing money, jobs and other much sought-after services, these groups have been able, so it seems, to make a large and growing number of converts in the valley.

Christianity is not new to Kashmir, but the Christian population in the region has always remained miniscule despite the existence of Christian institutions in some towns such as Srinagar and Baramulla for several decades now. These institutions, run mostly by Catholic groups, have stayed away from overt missionary activities, preferring to focus instead on educational provision, albeit on a limited scale. The emergence of Western-funded Protestant Christian missionary groups in Kashmir is a relatively recent development, a direct outcome of the ongoing turmoil in the region. As in neighboring Afghanistan, Protestant evangelist groups, taking advantage of the mass misery caused by the ravages of years of civil war, have entered Kashmir in a major way, providing badly needed services and funds as a means for winning converts. That this should have happened is hardly surprising given the ambitious missionary agenda of American and European Protestant evangelist groups, who see themselves as engaged in a global crusade to spread their faith and combat other religions, which they regard as representing unrelenting darkness and evil.

While recognizing the freedom of all people to preach and propagate their faith, the large-scale intrusion of Protestant evangelists in politically sensitive Kashmir raises several serious questions. To begin with, as the current debate on religious conversions in India has forced us to accept, the freedom to preach one’s faith cannot be regarded as absolute, that is to say in the exercise of this right missionary groups must abide by a set of accepted ethical guidelines and norms.  To take advantage of a people’s haplessness, poverty and misery, offering material inducements and promises of further reward in exchange for changing one’s religious affiliation is not just completely unethical, but, even worse, a gross affront to any true spirituality. One would have had no problem with religious groups providing material services to the needy out of a spirit of genuine concern and sympathy, but if these are simply a clever ruse to reap a rich harvest of converts it makes a complete mockery of all protestations of charity. This suggests that such groups are in fact hardly concerned about the plight of the people whom they claim to serve. Unfortunately, for many Protestant evangelist groups providing social services is considered simply a tool for pursuing the hidden agenda of proselytisation. Sasanka Perera, in his study ‘New Evangelical Movements and Conflict in South Asia’ [Colombo, 1998] raises the interesting question of whether Protestant fundamentalist groups would still continue the façade of serving the poor if conversions were made illegal, and suggests that ‘it seems to me as quite unlikely that evangelical organizations would be willing to operate in such conditions’.

Another crucial issue that must be raised in this regard is the possible political implications of the activities of fundamentalist Protestant groups in Kashmir. Numerous scholars who have studied such movements in other parts of the world have pointed to the complex political linkages between such groups and their financers, themselves often major political actors based in America and Europe. Typically, such groups stand for and promote an extremely regressive, ultra-conservative and fiercely pro-American political agenda. Some Protestant missionary outfits are even said to have been liberally funded by the CIA in order to undermine political forces that are seen as inimical to American interests. In today’s America, the right-wing Protestant fundamentalist camp is closely linked to the Republican Party, both sharing a common commitment to global American supremacy, this being construed as representing the ultimate in Christian civilization. For the American establishment such missionary groups serve as a powerful means to advance its global interests. As Christopher Soper comments in his survey of Protestant fundamentalist groups based in America, such groups are often readily willing to use the vast financial resources that they have at their disposal for ‘political purposes’ [‘Evangelical Christianity in the United States and Britain’, London, 1994]. As Sasanka Perera warns us, ‘the extensive networks of cooperation and contact between the Republican Party and evangelical movement in the United States are such that one could even pose the question of whether the Republicans constitute a wing of the collective evangelical movement in the United States’. This political clout the evangelists enjoy in the United States, Perera adds, ‘translates into the ability […] to operate from a position of power’.

To the grave political implications of aggressive missionary organizations one must add the crucial cultural transformations that such groups are generally determined to set in motion. Typically, such groups see local religions, cultures and traditions as ‘Satanic’ and ‘anti-Christian’, making them a special target of the attack. In their place, they propagate an individualistic consumerism and blind westernization, or, more specifically, Americanization. As such, then, as Perera argues, such groups pose the grave threat of causing serious conflicts in local societies. In a similar vein, according to another source, ‘Christian fundamentalism, not Islam, may have the potential to create more conflict internationally, for it can avail itself of all the advantages and power generated by a western-dominated economic system and its invasive message of consumerism’ (S. Brouwer, P.Gifford, S.Rose, ‘South Korea: Modernisation with a Vengeance, Evangelisation with a Modern Edge’, 1996).

That said, one must recognize that the evangelical Protestant groups would have hardly been able to make any headway in Kashmir had it not been for the almost complete lack of any effort on the part of local Muslim groups to seriously address the crucial economic and social problems of their own people. Despite being in a majority in the state, the Kashmiri Muslims have done little by way of setting up institutions to provide relief and succor to the needy. The Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Awqaf Trust, with control over properties of several crores (millions in currency), has tragically done almost nothing by way of development work. Its activities are mainly confined to maintaining mosques and shrines, establishing shopping complexes, and providing a lucrative source of income to those with the right political connections. Kashmir University now boasts of a department of business management, but the powers that be seem to imagine that a department of social work is still quite unnecessary, and this in a state where over 50,000 people have been killed in the last decade or so.  Recent years have witnessed the mushrooming of a number of NGOs in Kashmir, but many of these are said to be simply money-raking ventures. For all the talk of ‘jihad’ in Kashmir, there are hardly any madrasahs of note in the state, and for higher Islamic education Kashmiris are forced to head to the Nadwatu’l-‘Ulamā and Deoband. On the other hand, although they are in a minority in the state, the Hindus of Jammu and the Buddhists of Ladakh are clearly ahead of the valley’s Muslims in establishing and managing development agencies for their own people.

Clearly, no heady talk of ‘Islamic Revolution’ can substitute for working for the everyday, this-worldly bread-and-butter concerns of the least of the poor. It is only because such concerns have received little attention that Protestant evangelists have managed to make such serious inroad in Kashmir, if the newspaper reports are to be believed. If the conversions are occurring because the plight of the poor leads them open to the blandishments of the missionaries, the way out, is, as the Qur’ān suggests, to ‘vie with one another in good deeds’, working for the least of the poor, for in that alone can the fruits of true faith be seen. 


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