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Evangelicals back other Christians on conversion code of conduct

A World Evangelical Alliance theologian says his grouping of Christians that stresses its proclamation of the Gospel is ready to support a code of conduct on seeking conversions to Christianity commonly agreed by traditional Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox churches as well as by Roman Catholics.

"’Evangelical’ and ‘ecumenical’ Christians have never been as close in this regard as they are today. Thus, something that would not have been possible 30 years ago has become achievable," said Thomas Schirrmacher, a German theologian who chairs the WEA’s International Institute for Religious Freedom. "It would be the first time ever that such a broad Christian backing is given to an agreement of this kind."

Schirrmacher was a speaker at an 8-12 August consultation in Toulouse, jointly hosted by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the Geneva-based World Council of Churches’ programme on interreligious dialogue and cooperation. Attended by some 30 Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical theologians and church representatives, the meeting advanced the mapping out of a common code of conduct on religious conversion. A finalised code is expected by 2010.

For Schirrmacher, such a code should, "establish the borderline between acceptable forms of mission protected by religious freedom, and undue forms of trying to convert people". The WEA leader recognised, however, the difficulty in nailing down "unethical means" to a concrete code of conduct, given different historical, religious, cultural and political contexts.

Some adherents of Pentecostalism, and others within Evangelical Christianity have come in for criticism by other Christians and members of other religions for engaging in aggressive proselytising. Tensions have also arisen among Christian denominations, including Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox, over what has been called "sheep stealing", or engaging in conversion by encroaching into areas where one church has traditionally dominated.

While preserving the right to propagate one’s faith, the code of conduct would emphasise respect for the faithful of any religion, noted Hermen Shastri, general secretary of the Council of Churches of Malaysia and co-moderator of the WCC’s Faith and Order Commission. "Religious preachers need to be told that no religion has monopoly to the truth, that there are many ways to find salvation," said Shastri.

Evangelising activities need to avoid, "stooping to belittle or condemn other religions," affirmed Fiorello Mascarenhas, a Jesuit from India and a former chairperson of the International Catholic Charismatic Renewal Office Council. Rather, he said, evangelisation should promote, "inter-religious dialogue and religious harmony, as well as wholehearted cooperation in human welfare projects".

For Tony Richie, a theologian and pastor with the Church of God in the United States, a Pentecostal denomination, the code of conduct must be built around the concept of "dialogical evangelism" instead of "aggressive evangelism". Such an evangelism, Richie believes, can still be energetic and enthusiastic but not coercive or manipulative. He also explains that an appropriate evangelism needs to be ecumenical in attitude and concerned with operating ethically.

John Langlois, a lawyer who is an executive council member of the WEA, and also attended the Toulouse meeting, talks of the code of conduct including, "an expression of repentance for past wrongdoings so as to make clear that the superiority mentality in regard to other religions has been overcome".

While expressing sorrow because Evangelicals have used "undue pressure" or "violated human rights in the name of missions", Schirrmacher stressed that “all branches of Christianity need to be self-critical”. The envisioned code of conduct, "will only make sense if it is not directed against Evangelicals and Pentecostals but written together with them". The WEA’s "involvement and blessing is crucial in order to win the ‘black sheep’ amongst Evangelicals and Pentecostals over for a respectful kind of evangelism," Schirrmacher said.

For Hans Ucko, a Swedish theologian who leads the WCC’s programme for interreligious dialogue and cooperation, "The fact that Protestants, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and Evangelicals were able to meet and discuss such a complex issue is in itself a success." While emphasising the preliminary character of the findings, Ucko said the code of conduct would distinguish between "aggressive proselytizing" and "evangelism", and balance the mandate to evangelise and the right to choose freely.

How to enforce such a code of conduct, however, remains an open question. Neither the WEA nor the WCC has any formal authority over their members. It is also clear that the code of conduct is unlikely to become official policy within the Catholic Church. In regard to Pentecostals, there is "no one who can force all of them to do anything", Richie said. He suggested, however, that, "The power of positive peer pressure can be pretty effective".

Juan Michel is the press officer for the World Council of Churches and was assigned by ENI to write this story. (c) Ecumenical News International