Proselytism or Evangelization? (Part 1)

Legal Expert María José Ciaurriz Makes the Distinction

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MADRID, Spain, JUNE 10, 2003 ( For María José Ciaurriz, professor of ecclesiastical law at Madrid’s National University of Long-Distance Education, «to evangelize is a legitimate act of proselytism.»

Yet, she cautions that «many non-Christian religious confessions engage in proselytism that cannot be classified as evangelization.»

Ciaurriz is the author of «The Right to Proselytize in the Framework of Religious Liberty,» published by the Center of Political and Constitutional Studies. In her book, the author defines religious liberty as the framework within which to exercise the right to proselytize, and analyzes the right to proselytize in relation to confessions and states.

For the author, «proselytism effectively forms part of religious liberty.» This is the first of a two-part interview.

Q: Is proselytism part of the right of religious liberty?

Ciaurriz: The right of religious liberty is mentioned, in one way or another, in all international declarations that make reference to fundamental human rights.

This is also true of the constitutions of most democratic countries and, in general, of all modern doctrine on the subject. Religious liberty is not presented as a right that the state or public power grants to citizens, but as a right that antecedes the juridical order, which the latter has the duty to watch over and protect.

It is a right that manifests itself in a variety of ways of acting, essential among which is the right to choose and profess a desired religion; the right to change one’s religion; and the right to manifest one’s religion, which in turn includes the right to publish, teach, preach and engage in proselytism, in addition to the right to act in public and private life according to one’s own religious convictions.

From all this is deduced the fact that the right of proselytism forms part, effectively, of the right of religious liberty.

It is true that there is a determined doctrinal current that rejects the word «proselytism» and substitutes it with other similar expressions, such as communication of one’s beliefs, etc. However, regardless of what denomination we use, it is evident that the freedom of expression of one’s faith would have no meaning, and would empty of content the right to change one’s religion, if the right was denied to set forth to others, through legitimate means, the content of one’s convictions to attract them to these.

There are, in fact, very diverse fields open to proselytism: political proselytism, artistic proselytism, scientific proselytism; in other words, the various ways of setting forth to other people what one’s personal ideas are to incorporate them to our own options in any of those fields. In this context, it is absolutely illogical to think that religious liberty does not imply the right to proselytism.

Q: What is illegitimate proselytism?

Ciaurriz: It is the kind of proselytism that is to be rejected in this as in any other area. We are referring to the coercion that can be exercised in many ways on people to induce them by force to adopt an attitude or a belief.

It must be kept in mind that when a state, such as the case of Greece, has condemned people belonging to a religion that is different from the national one for carrying out illegitimate proselytism, the majority of times the European Court of Strasbourg has given the right of reason to the one who was proselytizing and not to the state, because it considers propagation of one’s faith, by all legitimate means, as a right that is integrated in religious liberty.

Q: Can a believer who communicates his faith publicly be accused of being a proselytizer?

Ciaurriz: To answer this question, it is necessary to refer to what has just been said in favor of religion. To communicate one’s faith, publicly or privately, is a legitimate right; to do so through coercion is not.

The question entails an equivocation. Can a believer be accused of being a proselytizer? One gets the feeling that to be a proselytizer is a crime and that such an accusation can befall on the one who is a proselytizer. It is not at all like this.

The public, as well as the private, expression of one’s faith must enjoy the widest protection of the international and national juridical ordering.

Any manifestation of one’s faith is an act of proselytism, in so far as it transmits to others the news of a personal conviction that, of itself, tends to be communicated.

This can be done through teaching, through expressing one’s ideas in books and the media, as well as in conferences and other similar systems. It can be done through direct and private conversation, that is, it can be done through all the legitimate means with the objective to have other people know one’s own convictions and also to attract them to these.

Q: In what way does proselytism differ from evangelization?

Ciaurriz: Proselytism is a much broader term than evangelization, although evangelization is a form of proselytism.

In fact, evangelization entails the diffusion of the Gospel, and the Gospel is a book, a group of books, of a doctrinal content that is exclusively proper to the churches and Christian communities. The Gospels recount the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and are exclusively accepted as divine revelation by certain religious confessions.

Consequently, those who set forth the doctrine contained in the Gospels, for the purpose of informing others, and also for the purpose of attracting them to such a doctrine, are carrying out a legitimate act of proselytism, making known the content of their own faith. We call this evangelization, a phenomenon that has had very different characteristics in the course of the centuries.

It is not possible to assert that all the historical forms of evangelization were carried out without any type of pressure, very especially when it refers to the evangelization of primitive peoples, or those situated in very primitive levels of culture and civilization.

However, neither can we judge historical phenomena in light of the present. Certain attitudes that today are acceptable or objectionable, according to present cultural parameters, cannot be judged as such at other times in history, according to the parameters then in existence.

In any case, at present, without any doubt, evangelization is a form of setting forth the doctrinal content of the faith of the churches that accept the Gospels as a revealed source, while many other non-Christian religious confessions engage in a proselytism that cannot be called evangelization.

Q: Who are the subjects of proselytism, sects, religious groups, religions?

Ciaurriz: The subjects of proselytism are always individuals, both in an active as well as a passive sense. Proselytism is the work of persons who address other persons and who, normally, do so in the name of their own faith and of the religious group to which they belong.

[Part 2 of this interview will appear this week]

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