Readers' Forum: Predatory conversions send a message of bigotry and religious triumphalism

Fremont, CA (January 22, 2011) - The following piece by HAF's Samir Kalra and Mihir Meghani was published in the Contra Costa Times.  The original article can be found online by clicking here.
THE RECENT Bay Area News Group coverage of Bhutanese refugees highlighted the experiences of Hindu and Buddhist Bhutanese refugees in the Bay Area, and raised important issues surrounding religious conversions. As the article points out, many groups and organizations have helped ease the adjustment process for the Bhutanese refugees by providing various types of assistance.
However, for some Christian groups, the provision of assistance to these vulnerable communities is not purely altruistic, but rather comes with a larger agenda: gaining converts and "saving souls." Although such motives are difficult to document, in the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami, for example, there were several reports of predatory proselytization by missionary organizations leaving tsunami-shattered villages in India after local residents refused to convert as a precondition for receiving material aid.
Hindus believe there are multiple valid paths to attain the Divine, and therefore are unable to understand the incessant attempts to convert Hindus and other non-Christians to Christianity. Hindu-Americans and other pluralists find predatory proselytization particularly disturbing as vulnerable populations such as the Bhutanese refugees, already having faced persecution and harassment in their native land, are targeted for conversions behind the guise of providing financial assistance and social services.
While many view these types of conversions as harmless and frame the issue as one of religious freedom and free will, they fail to appreciate the larger issues involved. Beyond the traumatic impact on individuals, families and communities, conversions send a message of exclusiveness and religious triumphalism. In essence, when these predatory Christian groups convert non-Christians, they are asserting their religious superiority, and conversely proclaiming the inherent inferiority of all other belief systems. The conversion thereby provides a sense of victory for Christianity and a conquest over the "other."
These predatory practices also expose a form of bigotry, representing a refusal to accept others for their religious beliefs and a constant desire to change them. They further demonstrate a lack of respect for diversity and the unique contributions of other faith traditions.
Moreover, when Christian missionaries aggressively proselytize and employ deceptive tactics, their activities often result in inflamed religious tensions and increased conflict throughout the world. For example, in many countries where evangelical groups are active, they frequently cause anger and resentment among the locals, while fomenting discord between those who continue to practice their indigenous beliefs and the newly converted souls.
Instead of creating an atmosphere where religious harmony and mutual respect thrive, these Christian organizations contribute to an environment of suspicion and mistrust. Given our current global state, where intolerance and poverty are widespread, humanity would be far better served if these groups focused on providing aid for the sole objective of helping others, rather than seeking to convert impoverished and powerless communities or change their spiritual, religious and cultural beliefs and practices.
America has a strong history of accepting religious diversity. It would undermine America's generosity to these poor refugees if some exclusivist Christians or Mormons manipulated them to get them to convert to a faith that is alien to them. Instead, they should show immigrants what America should be for them and has been for many people in the past -- a place where diversity of religion, culture, and belief are valued and respected.
Samir Kalra is an attorney and member of the Bay Area Working Group of the Hindu American Foundation. Dr. Mihir Meghani is an emergency room physician and co-founder of the foundation.