Emory Report

January 12, 1998

 Volume 50, No. 16

Law & Religion examines proselytizing, human rights

Emory's Law and Religion Program is wrapping up a three-year research program that takes the most comprehensive and in-depth look ever at the problem of religious proselytizing in sub-Saharan Africa, the former Soviet bloc and Latin America. Now the fruits of that research are being applied to some present-day human rights issues, according to John Witte, director of the program and project co-director.

"The machinations of the Russian parliament have been advantageous to our cause and a critical laboratory for testing our theories as a whole," said Witte of Russia's recently adopted restrictive religion law. "Russia has since 1993 been hinting at a response to foreign missionaries by simply banning them, but we had no idea that its parliament or president would inflame the problem with the degree of acuity that occurred."

Because of increased attention the Russian proselytizing issue began receiving this spring, said Witte, project researchers found themselves unexpectedly "pressed into diplomatic or scholarly service in part because we've had the issue under discussion for two years already." Members of the project teams have consulted with the Office of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), an office of the executive branch of the European Union and a major player in human rights questions.

Funded by a $490,000 grant from The Pew Charitable Trusts, the proselytizing project has brought together 125 scholars and activists from around the world to conduct and publish research on the growing clashes between indigenous religions and foreign missionizing religions in regions of the world that have experienced rapid democratization and political change.

Witte said researchers involved in the project are trying "to parse and police the line between legitimate and illegitimate forms of exercise, enhancement and extension of religious, cultural and ethnic traditions," a concern that has assumed new importance in the last few years. Since the Emory project began in 1994, at least four new major efforts have sprung up to address the same issue through the World Council of Churches, The Helsinki Committee, the U.S. Department of State and OSCE.

Overall the project will culminate in the publication of nine or 10 books by the end of 1998, the publication of 75 to 100 journal articles and editorials and a host of catalytic efforts. Rather than having one grand conference on the subject, said Witte, the program took to the road over the last two years, with groups of researchers working on one of six teams focusing on Russia; Eastern Europe; Ukraine; Southern Africa; East, West and Central Africa; and Latin America.

Latin America, a region not originally intended for study, was added to the project after clashes between Roman Catholic leaders and newly influential American and Western European evangelical missionaries began making headlines. The Latin American project team, headed by Paul Sigmund of Princeton University, will publish an anthology titled Evangelization and Religious Freedom in Latin America that will include chapters on Roman Catholicism, mainstream Protestantism, evangelical churches, Judaism and case studies on Mexico, Cuba, Costa Rica and Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

Each research team had one or more meetings on site and is in the final stages of producing books intended to provide a comprehensive analysis of the problem of proselytizing in their appointed region. For example, a team of 10 scholars at Keston Institute, Oxford University and Emory has completed a two-year study on Russian Orthodox attitudes toward Protestants, Roman Catholics and expatriate Protestant missionaries that will be published in the Emory International Law Review this winter and in one of the books to emerge from the project.

The goal of the project is not only to fully assess the problem of proselytizing through research, said Witte, but also "where possible, seek to assuage the most acute forms of conflict through the cultivation of human rights solutions." These solutions are not easily discoverable nor achieved, he admitted.

Even within Christian theology, there is a conflict between the Great Commission and the Golden Rule: "How does a person or community abide simultaneously with the callings to 'Go forth into the world and make disciples of all nations' and to 'Do unto others as you would have them do unto you'?" asked Witte. In human rights terms, the conflict is between a community's right to expand the faith versus another person's or community's right to be left alone.

"A new war for souls has begun to break out in several new 'democracies' around the world, a war over the cultural and moral souls of these new societies by competing forms of faith," said Witte. In part, the "war" is a theological one, but it is also a legal war where religious favoritism lies beneath the shiny veneer of newly won freedoms. In Russia, for example, the situation is not just a war of competing religious interests, said Witte, but "a fight for the future identity of the Russian nation itself."

-Elaine Justice

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