Anti-Conversion Legislations and Religious Freedom

A talk delivered by Ziya Meral at a Religious Freedom Consultancy, House of Lords, 20 March 2007. The text may not be published or re-posted without the permission of the author.

The exercise of our potential to form beliefs and live them accordingly is one of the key factors in making who we are as individuals. Beliefs go deeper than political affiliations or adherences or philosophical formulations. They affect what we eat, drink, how we dress, where we live, what jobs we do or don’t, whom we marry, how we see the world, what we value in life and what we live and die for. Thus choosing to believe or not to believe, to adopt or not to adopt a religion is a life-defining act thus a fundamental issue.

As Declaration on the Elimination of All forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion and Belief notes “religion or belief, for anyone who professes either, is one of the fundamental elements in his conception of life and that freedom of religion or belief should be fully respected and guaranteed”.

In fact this was what was argued for in the Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which notes that “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.”

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (referred to as ICCPR from now on) has sought to protect this “right”. Article 18 of the ICCPR states:

“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.”

Sadly over the last 4 years we have seen an increasing amount of violations of these rights and these violations have often continued without international community’s attention or at times wilful overlooking.

In 2006 the case of Abdul Rahman in Afghanistan, who converted to Christianity from Islam 15 years ago and who was facing death penalty was widely covered in the world wide media. He was eventually released due to International pressure but had to flee to Italy as the high level exposure of his case to media brought with it his possible murder by extremist groups.

However, Abdul Rahman’s story is neither unique nor a one off event. Converts, people who change their religion have been continually facing the risk of death and gross human rights abuses including denial of access to education, housing, employment, business, movement, worship.

Allow me to point out to three different cases. In India, often referred as the largest democracy in the world, 7 states- Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Arunachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and recently Himachal Pradesh, have enacted so called “Freedom of Religious Acts”. A similar law in Tamil Nadu was repealed in 2004. The chief objective of these laws is the prevention of conversion from Hinduism to any other religion carried out by ‘forcible’ or ‘fraudulent’ means of by ‘allurement’ or ‘inducement’. Article 3 of the Orissa Freedom of Religion Act, which serves as a basis to subsequent laws in other states, stipulated that “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religious faith to another by the use of force or by inducement or by any fraudulent means nor shall any person abet such conversion.”

Critics within and outside of India have drawn attention to vague formulation of phrases such as ‘allurement’ or ‘inducement’ and the possible doors this open to persecution of Non-Hindu groups in India. It has also been widely noted that the subtext behind these laws is the mass conversion to Christianity and Islam among Dalits- the so called untouchables and the Tribesman. Conversion provides them a way out of the caste system and socio-economic opportunities. With increasing Hindu nationalism, during 2006 BJP and various Hindu nationalist organisations have asked similar laws to be introduced nationwide. Not so surprisingly, 2006 saw widespread violence against Christians in many states across the country.

These laws, not only contradict the Indian Constitution, such as Article 25, which guarantees the right to believe, choose and propagate beliefs but also International treaties India is a signatory party to. As the well known patterns of Human Rights abuses show, when such laws go unchallenged they often serve as an encouragement to other countries.

In fact, when the Sri Lankan Minister of Hindu Cultural Affairs visited Tamil Nadu, India in 2002, when the Religious Freedom Act was still in use, he brought back to Sri Lanka the proposal for a legislation to prohibit ‘forced’ or ‘unethical’ conversions. This was later developed into a “Freedom of Religion Bill”, which was approved by the Cabinet in 2004, but has not been introduced to the Parliament, thus has not came into force yet.

The final draft of the bill states in Section 2 that “no person shall, either directly or otherwise, convert or attempt to convert any person professing one religion to another religion by the use of force, allurement or by fraudulent means.” Though, everyone would agree that using force or unethical means that exploits socio-economic vulnerabilities to ‘convert’ somebody is wrong, when the increasing violence towards the religious minorities in Sri Lanka particularly towards Christians since 2003 is taken into account, it appears that these vague formulations are regularly used by various Buddhist groups to deny the exercise of any other religion all together. As religious boundaries are closely linked to ethnic boundaries (i.e. to be a Sinhalese is to be Buddhist, to be a Tamil is to be a Hindu), conversion to another religion is seen as a threat, betrayal or treason. During 2006, attacks on churches, clergy and their families, hindrance of religious ceremonies have continued.

This of course not only contradicts, the article 10 of Sri Lanka’s Constitution which protects freedom of conscience and religion, ‘including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief’, but also the International responsibilities Sri Lanka has.

Algerian Parliament passed a new legislation, titled “the conditions and rules for the exercise of religious worship other than Islam” on February 2006, which came into force in September 2006. The legislation hinders the right of assembly and even collecting tidings during worship services. It stipulates a prison term ranging from two to five years and a fine of between $7000- 14000 for anyone who “incites, constrains or uses any seductive means aimed at converting a Muslim to another religion, or uses to this end establishments for teaching, education, health; organisations of a social or cultural nature; training institutions, or any other establishment, or any financial means”, and who “makes, stores, or distributes printed documents or audiovisual productions or who makes use of any other support or means that aims to shake the faith of a Muslim.” Elusive terms such as ‘seductive means’ or ‘aims to shake the faith of a Muslim’ are of great concern and many fear that this vagueness will facilitate malicious prosecution against religious minorities. In fact, the new legislation even criminalizes objections or protests against itself.

At the surface level, these legislations seem to be against unethical propagation of other religions and wider concerns of security. These possible misuses of religion and propagation are in fact mentioned in the Article 18 of ICCPR:

18.2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
18.3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.

These anti-conversion legislations cunningly come very close to assert themselves as the limitations, which ICCPR brings to religious freedom. Thus, they can, rather ironically, be named as Religious “Freedom” Acts, that actually seek to protect freedom of religion. In actuality, when this discourse is placed within its context and its day to day implications, these legislations are clearly an annex, a bold legal actualization of ever present tensions and attitudes within societies towards those of other religious creeds and specifically towards converts who are seen as betraying their people. Iran has continually argued that Bahá’ís in Iran were a political group that actively sought to overthrow the regime, thus Iran had the right to deny the use of free exercise of their religion.

In Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen, Sudan, Iran and Mauritania apostasy is punishable by death as these countries constitutionally acknowledge Shari’a as the primary ‘source for legislation’. The traditional Shi’a Jafari school of Shari’a Law, as well as all four Sunni schools, teach death penalty for anyone leaving Islam. It is worth to note that these laws are not forced regularly or consistently and there is a growing number of modern Islamic scholars who condemn death penalty.

In Iran, there has not been an official execution lately. On the other hand during 2006 and 2007, Muslim background Christians in various parts of Iran have been detained, abused, then released on hefty bails including turning over their properties and further threats that they will be charged with treason if they continue to propagate their faith, partake in a local church and more significantly if they report these abuses to the International community. Iran’s track record of abuses includes de facto denial of the right of education, assembly, employment to hundreds of thousands of Bahá’ís living in Iran. Just because they are Bahá’ís.

Egypt is another important country, which has persecuted religious minorities, denied ID cards, employment, fair access to courts and still requires a never ending process for even repairing a non-Muslim religious centre, let alone build new ones. In Egypt, converts from Islam to other religions regularly face incommunicado detention by State Intelligence Service, loss of their marital status or right over their children, property and family heritage. A 57 years old man, Bahaa Al Aqqad, has been kept in an underground desert cell without an official charge during 2006 and well into 2007. Though the court has ordered his release following the end of the 6 months right of detention given to security forces, solely because he has converted from Islam two years ago and chose to speak about it his new faith.

Even in Turkey, a secular democratic republic, converts regularly face not only persecution from their communities but suffer structural hindrances that prohibit their socio-economic opportunities as their security files mark them as a national threat. During the last year, a Turkish church formed by converts in Odemis were attacked by Molotov Cocktails and another one in Samsun stoned. The local police and governor has ordered the Odemis church to shut down their church. The legal process now is not the arrests of the attackers but whether or not this church will remain open.

Currently two Muslim background Christians, Hakan Tastan and Turan Topal await a court decision on the charges of the renowned “insulting Turkishness” and the accusation of offering money, sexual opportunities and threats with the use of guns to convert Muslims. Over the last two years, Turkish media, intellectuals and sadly politicians continued their assertions that conversion of Turks to other religions was an internationally organized campaign to destroy Turkey. Such sentiments have shown themselves in the killing of the Roman Catholic priest, Andrea Santoro by a 16 years old young man in Trabzon. Father Santoro was blamed to be seducing and alluring Muslim Turks to change their religion.

For the Western mind this can be a puzzling problem. In the Western world religion is seen primarily as a personalized belief. The notion of secularization, in its ideal forms, brings with itself the non-state involvement in individual beliefs, and of course non-religious involvement in the public sphere. Whereas the greatest portion of the world has never set foot on such a journey.

20th century Euro centric sociology has proudly forecasted that by the end of the 20th century there would hardly be any religion found in the public space. The inevitable secularization process would cause the decline of religion and make the rest of the world like secular Western Europe. Now it appears that Europe is the anomaly as religion in the Americas, Africa, Asia and the Middle East, meaning the greatest portion of the world, still continues to be a key defining factor and social force.

Today’s global world is often a polarized world, rather worlds living in close proximity. In this picture, boundaries are increasingly drawn along religious and ethnic lines. In all of the cases I quoted here, India, Sri Lanka, Algeria, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, we see emerging patterns of increasing ethno-nationalisms that has strong religious tones. These are in fact ontologies in the making, and a person, who chooses to change his religion is located involuntarily into a new category. They no more fit the nationalist or ethnic constructions and are seen as one of the enemies. They are not only doomed to anomy and a sense of loss and not belonging anywhere, but also left without a shelter or protection.

Human Rights tools have been targets of sharp criticisms. “They are Western, individualized, Judeo-Christian. We should not impose our values to the rest of the world as if they are universal.” All of these are true to a certain extent. Human Rights laws are all human products, with the underlying good intention to protect fellow human beings. They are open to maturation. In women’s rights, children’s rights and various other issues we do see great improvements, attention and emerging policies. We should by all means continue to advance them. Because they are the only things we got in our hands.

But sadly, the right to believe or the fate of millions of people who suffer persecution for no other reason than holding different religious beliefs are overlooked, left undone and somehow are not worth our attention and energy. This is not only seen in the governmental levels but also among NGOs. Often religious persecution isn’t included in country profiles or reported in worldwide media. It seems that the effects of the19th and 20th centuries’ outdated attitudes towards religion still linger, amidst 21st century realities and the faces of people who suffer.