Christians Move Towards Code on Seeking Converts

GENEVA – Christian churches are moving closer to a common code of conduct on how they go about winning converts among themselves and from other religions, the World Council of Churches (WCC) said on Monday.

Conversion, sometimes dubbed “sheep-stealing” as it targets another’s flock, is a cause of friction and conflict between religions and among different branches of individual faiths.

Militant groups are often accused of underhand tactics in winning over new adherents.

The Geneva-based WCC, working with the Vatican on the issue, said a meeting in Toulouse later this week should bring the year-long process of agreeing a conversion rule-book nearer to completion by its target date of 2009.

Evangelical and Pentecostal representatives will be taking part in the dialogue for the first time, and we see this as a good sign for the eventual success of this project,” said WCC spokesman Juan Michel.

The two strongly proselytizing sects, which have made heavy inroads into membership of other Christian groupings especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, stood aloof when the effort was launched at a meeting near Rome in May last year.

But this time senior figures from both — German-based philosopher Thomas Schirrmacher of a group called WEA and Bishop Tony Richie of the Church of God in the United States — will attend, although in their personal rather than institutional capacity.

“We have always wanted this process to be inclusive and open, so that all religious partners from Christian faiths and others can make a contribution towards the shaping of the code,” said Michel.

The first meeting was attended — alongside the Christians — by representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Yoruba faiths. They issued a joint statement saying freedom of religion was “a non-negotiable right of every human being.”

The Toulouse gathering, from August 8 to 12 at the city’s Catholic Institute, will bring together some 30 Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox and other theologians and church representatives, said the WCC.

“Conversion is a controversial issue not only in inter-religious relations, but in intra-Christian relations as well,” said Hans Ucko, the WCC’s main official for dialogue between faiths.

“In Latin America, it is a source of tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement, while in other regions Orthodox churches often feel ‘targeted’ by some Protestant missionary groups,” added Ucko.

WCC officials say the code should help ease relations with other faiths, especially with Islamic leaders who regard individual Muslims who convert as apostates. In some countries, these face the death penalty if they do not recant.

Individual Muslim groups regard missionaries — or even suspected missionaries — of other religions as “enemies of the true faith” and sometimes take extreme measures against them.

The Taliban in Afghanistan have accused the 23 South Koreans they captured last month, two of whom they have since killed, of coming to the country to spread Christianity in a devoutly Muslim land.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 7, 2007.
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