Swami Agnivesh's letter to Pope on Conversion in English

Date – 25-10-2011

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI

The Vatican

I am looking forward to joining you in the Vatican and Assisi on the pilgrimage that you have scheduled. I leave for Rome tomorrow.

I am writing to you now as I have just received the message issued by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue to the Hindus on the occasion of Diwali. I am writing to you as a friend—in particular of the Christians in India. Whenever they have been targeted by fanatics of other religions, including Hindus, I have been in the forefront of taking up their cause.

Such efforts of well-wishers like me can be set at naught by one of the themes that can be read into your message. The communication that you have sent rightly places emphasis on religious freedom. After enumerating several constituents of this, it states, ‘ . . . it includes the freedom to change one’s religion.’

This enunciation needs to be qualified. Otherwise, it will lend itself to the inference that, while the message talks of freedom to believe in any religion and to practice it, under the guise of advocating that noble ideal, what it does is to advance a mandate for conversion.

This is bound to ignite strong reactions in a country like India. We have suffered a great deal at the hands of persons and organizations who have insisted that the only way people can be saved is for them to give up their own faiths and adopt the faith that is being proffered to them by missionaries and mullahs.

The reaction is all the more certain as the allusion will be read as the continuation of the Pope John Paul II’s Ecclesia in Asia and his address to the Cardinals and Bishops that had assembled during his visit to India in November 1999. ‘Just as in the first millennium the Cross was planted on the soil of Europe,” the Pope had declared, ‘and in the second that of the Americas and Africa, we can pray that in the third Christian millennium a great harvest of faith will be reaped in this vast and vital continent.’ The synod is ‘an ardent affirmation of faith in Jesus Christ the Saviour, and it remains a call to conversion . . .’ we were told. As if endorsing the call of the assembled functionaries of the Church, he declared fervently that ‘the heart of the Church in Asia will be restless until the whole of Asia finds its rest in the peace of Christ, the Risen Lord.’

The extension that the communication has made—of freedom to believe to mean freedom for missionaries to convert—is at complete variance with the theme that you have enunciated for the pilgrimage. You have set it out as a journey towards peace and truth. And your core message is that one’s commitment to peace and truth is all that is required.

Moreover, the extension flies in the face of what our Supreme Court has held. It has held that the freedom to profess does not include the freedom to convert.

And that for good reasons:

  • Missionaries—and not just of the Church—have used the privations of the poor to inveigle them into abandoning their own religions: as you know so well from your close acquaintance with the history of the Church, they have not just not stopped at using the extreme distress of our people during famines and the like to ‘harvest their souls’, they have actively used such tragedies.
  • They have beguiled poor and ignorant people by pasting the most egregious falsehoods on to our gods and goddesses.
  • Missionaries have beguiled them by promises of miracles and the like. Far from the promised miracles having come about, even the social equality within the Church that was promised to members of lower castes in India, to take just one example, has not come their way. Volumes upon volumes have been written by the converted to this effect.
  • Ever so often, those engineering the conversions have used the very coercion that your message so strongly condemns.
  • Conversions by such means have thrown individuals into confusion. They have alienated them from the very communities that have sustained them. And, where the conversions have ensnared large numbers, they have alienated these from the larger community of which they are a part.
  • This has ignited violence against groups and against individual missionaries also.

Such outcomes cannot but disrupt the harmony that all of us are committed to promote.

I am with you in holding that every individual should be free to explore other religions. That exploration has to be free. It has to be by the individual herself or himself. It has to be an informed search.

It must not be induced by enticement. It must not be propelled by compulsion. It must not be engineered by falsehoods and calumny. Nor by false promises. And certainly not by coercion—including in the latter, coercion of the subtlest kind as in frightening persons by hectoring them that ‘an unbaptised soul will be condemned to eternal hell-fire.’

Such conversions cannot but ignite strong reaction. They cannot but intensify tensions in our societies. They will surely lead to violent outbursts. In a word, they will lead precisely to the outcomes that this pilgrimage wishes so earnestly to foreclose.

I, therefore, request that, in contrast to the advocacy of conversion that can be inferred from your message, we ask for a moratorium on collective conversions, on conversions brought about by force or enticement. In particular, we should advocate a moratorium on converting persons who are not yet mature to weigh options, including the option not to align with any particular denominational religion—after all, how can an infant or an unlettered tribal exercise an informed choice?

Such a moratorium will give peoples of different faiths time to catch their breath, and to reflect. It will also give time to our various organizations and personnel to cleanse their own conduct.

During this time, of course, individuals will be totally free to practice their own religion, and, if their inner search takes them to another faith, to embrace it.

I hope we will have a full opportunity to discuss this matter at the conclave.

With best regards,
Swami Agnivesh