Evangelism and Proselytism in Russia: Synonyms or Antonyms?

By Elliott, Mark | International Bulletin of Missionary Research, April 2001 | Go to article overview

Evangelism and Proselytism in Russia: Synonyms or Antonyms?


Elliott, Mark, International Bulletin of Missionary Research


Missionary faiths such as Christianity and Islam strongly enjoin their adherents to witness to their convictions for the purpose of converting nonbelievers. [1] In this propagation they are both aided and restricted by modern human rights covenants, namely,

1. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948);

2. The European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (1950);

3. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966); and

4. The Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief (1981). [2]

The 1966 U.N. International Covenant, for example, protects one's right to "impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers." [3] But international human rights accords also have set limits on the expression and propagation of beliefs where they infringe on "the right of individuals to hold a belief of their choice without impairment." [4] These covenants circumscribe proselytism, the act of converting an individual from one faith or church to another, by specifically disallowing coercion, material inducement, violation of privacy, and preachments to captive audiences. [5]

The first important U.N. examination of change of religion, Arcot Krishnaswami's Study of Discrimination in the Matter of Religious Rights and Practices (1954), differentiates between the freedom to manifest a religious belief and the sometimes contending freedom to maintain a religious belief. [6] Similarly, Natan Lerner, an Israeli scholar of international law, identifies this "tension between the right to try to convince others in matters concerning religion ... and the desire to protect identification with a particular religion against any intrusion." He argues, "The determination of what is legitimate, and what is illegitimate, within the parameters of that tension is of great importance in the world today." [7]

Some parties will insist on the existence of a legitimate right to unfettered religious expression for the purpose of persuasion and conversion. Others, conversely, will insist on the right to be free of all unwanted religious proclamation, not just that which is coercive, invasive, or manipulative. In such cases of rigid single-mindedness, no meeting of minds is possible, and juxtaposing advocates of such uncompromising positions produces diatribe instead of dialogue. But if one concedes both a right to free religious expression and the legitimacy of restrictions upon abuses of religious expression, then there is a basis for discussion.

Continuing Issue of "Rice Christians"

The 1944 Hollywood production The Keys of the Kingdom recounted the story of a Catholic missionary priest from Scotland, played by Gregory Peck, who arrived at his station in China only to discover pseudo-Christians who had been bribed with rice to join Catholic ranks. [8] The issue over "rice Christians" is still with us. According to the Russian Orthodox Church, Catholics, Protestants, and cults are expanding their ranks in the former Soviet Union by precisely this means. The issue of inadmissible material inducements in evangelism and missions, what Natan Lerner calls "evangelistic malpractice," deserves serious consideration. [9] Keston Institute director Lawrence Uzzell states categorically, "Missionaries should not buy converts. Giving a provincial Russian a free Bible as an inducement to attend a religious lecture or worship service is the equivalent of paying an American fifty dollars or so for that purpose." And "offering brand-new converts or prospective converts ... a free trip to America ... can e asily become just a holiday, shopping opportunity, or springboard for permanent emigration ... Conditioned by Madison Avenue, American missionaries too easily forget that Jesus said, 'Take up thy cross and follow me,' not 'Take advantage of our new special offer.'" [10]

At the same time, Christian proclamation without concrete acts of compassion for the poor, the destitute, and the suffering rings hollow.

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