The Right to Convert

The Right to Convert
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The topic of the protection of converts conjures up an image of medieval homogeneity, a time when just about everyone was forced to belong to the Church and adhere to its teachings, or else. There was not much protection then for Jews or others who rejected Christianity. Yet, the issue is a very timely one today as the European Union -- joined on this score, in a parallel process, by the United States -- ponders its policies with regard to religious freedom.

This political community espouses values based on what it considers to be universal human rights, which includes freedom of religion or belief. Pope Benedict XVI even labelled it the most important of these rights, as it lies at the root of all others. This freedom, as described in the EU guidelines on the promotion and protection of freedom of religion or belief, means that an individual has complete freedom to have or not to have or adopt (as well as the right to change) any religion or belief of one's choice. The right to convert, or not, is anchored in the core values of the European Union. Hence, violations of this freedom -- wherever they occur -- call for a concrete response.

In practice, increasingly, this freedom is not respected as converts in certain settings face harassment, persecution, and even death. The EU, as well as the U.S., must act to combat a trend that threatens democracy, the rule of law, overall peace, and stability. It concerns abuses outside the EU borders, as well as within the countries of this community of nations.

Worldwide, the number of converts is growing rapidly. Populations and religious identities are mixing at a level never before seen in history. The digital revolution and the explosion of social media are further accelerating the process as exposure to new beliefs and traditions is readily at hand. For example, there are millions of Christians living on the Arab peninsula and millions of Muslims living in Europe. The situation presents a potential of conversion that is quite new.

Indeed, throughout the Middle East, notable individuals are converting to Christianity from Islam, but their stories, for obvious reasons, are seldom told. They actually face dramatic consequences and even death if they were to talk about their conversion. In Africa, to the consternation of some Muslim leaders, millions of Muslims are becoming Christians each year. In Europe, we tend to think only in terms of Christians becoming Muslims, but there is a strong movement in reverse as well. That is a story that does not make the headlines.

In the Middle East, there is no risk in converting from Christianity to Islam but the contrary is quite close to committing suicide, as apostasy is not allowed in Islam. It is punishable by death. One Iraqi man I know survived prison and an assassination attempt; he had to flee his country and is now living in France. Another convert who ended up in my country is a scion of a wealthy Iranian family, a woman who, not untypically -- in contrast with the more cerebral Western experience -- was drawn to Christianity by a mystical route. She suffered permanent physical damage because of beatings administered by her own parents. A third individual whose story I know well is from Algeria. He converted in France and did not suffer any violent persecution, but he did have to pay the price of utter rejection by his family.

Then there is the issue of the anti-blasphemy laws in Islamic nations like Pakistan. It is usually not applied to converts, but it certainly holds out a threat; it is a strong deterrent to conversion. Hence, such laws also call for a stronger response from Western governments. One well-known case involves Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother, who has spent the last four years in jail. Prison actually has protected her from assassins and she is still alive also thanks to an international protest campaign. But Western demands for her release and protection have gone unheeded so far.

Do not mistake this for an anti-Muslim screed, but an appeal for justice, for freedom, for a respect for human rights. At the very least, European governments, along with the U.S., must act more firmly in its dealings with Muslim extremism. To some extent, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been handled with kid gloves. A rash of violent attacks on Churches and Christian homes in Egypt has basically been met with silence on the part of Western policy-makers. Western leaders must be more mindful of the plight of Christian minorities -- as well as that of non-Christian religious minorities -- in every country where they face harassment and persecution. This would imply applying concrete pressure on governments in question to, for example, dismantle oppressive anti-blasphemy laws.

Another step would be the public support and funding of local organizations that provide legal and material aid for those persecuted under anti-blasphemy laws or suffering other forms of persecution. Christian Churches are often in the vanguard of such efforts, even at risk of their own security.

Finally, in France, Germany, the Netherlands, and the U.S., greater efforts must be made to give a hearing to testimony from converts to Christianity who have fled to the West. Their often gruesome and harrowing stories can move minds and hearts. The time to act is now.

Marc Fromager is director of Aid to the Church in Need in France, one of 17 national offices of an international Catholic charity that provides assistance to the suffering and persecuted Church in more than 140 countries.

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