By BRADLEY S. KLAPPER
The Associated Press
Wednesday, August 15, 2007; 6:20 PM
GENEVA — Evangelical groups have joined efforts spearheaded by Roman Catholic, Orthodox and mainstream Protestant churches to create a common code of conduct for religious conversions that would preserve the right of Christians to spread their religion while avoiding conflict among different faiths.
The World Council of Churches, which joined the Vatican last year in launching talks on a code, said Wednesday that the process was formally joined by the World Evangelical Alliance at a meeting earlier this month in France.
The code aims to ease tensions with Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups that fear losing adherents and resort to punishments as extreme as imprisonment and even death for converts from their faith and foreign missionaries.
The Taliban kidnapping of 23 South Korean Christians in Afghanistan last month underscored tensions. Two of the 23 have been killed. The accusations against the South Koreans include wanting to meet with former converts from Islam. But their church has denied they were trying to spread Christianity. The hardline Islamic militants freed two women on Monday.
WCC said the code of conduct should serve as an “advocacy tool in discussions with governments considering anti-conversion laws (and) help to advance the cause of religious freedom.” The rules should also address concerns in other religions about Christians seeking converts, and inspire those faiths to “consider their own codes of conduct,” it added.
The council noted, however, that “none of the partners involved intend _ nor have the means _ to impose the code of conduct on their constituencies, but they all trust that it will be able to ‘impact hearts and minds’ and allow for ‘moral and peer pressure.'”
Evangelization also has caused concern among the branches of Christianity because of the vigor with which Pentecostal and evangelical congregations have led the drive for conversions around the world, outstripping the growth of older churches. Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Brazil in May was partly a response to the exodus of millions of Catholics to Protestant evangelical churches.
Juan Michel, a spokesman for the Geneva-based WCC said the support from the evangelical alliance was a big boost for efforts to agree on guidelines by 2010.
Major evangelical groups were absent last year from a meeting of the Vatican and the WCC near Rome, where the idea for the code was initiated. But at the five-day meeting that ended Aug. 12 in Toulouse, Geoff Tunnicliffe, head of the evangelical alliance of 233 conservative Protestant church groups and ministries in 121 nations, gave his “full approval” to the process, the WCC said.
“The code of conduct is not about ‘whether’ Christians evangelize, but ‘how’ they do it,” said the Rev. Tony Richie of the Church of God, a Pentecostal U.S.-based denomination, according to a WCC review of the meeting.
The next step in the process will be in 2008 when the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue meets its WCC counterpart to draft the guidelines.
The WCC said the code should establish what “needs to be banned when it comes to Christian mission, a daunting task given the many different contexts involved.” But it should also provide guidelines for dealing with complicated issues such as interreligious marriages, the WCC added.
The WCC brings together about 350 Protestant, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches representing more than 560 million Christians.
Sensitivity to Christian proselytism is widespread among Muslims. Under most interpretations of Sharia, or strict Islamic law, conversion from Islam is forbidden.
Last week, a religious court in Malaysia ordered a woman trying to renounce Islam to undergo three months of counseling in the mainly Muslim country’s latest legal tussle over the issue. In Egypt, a Muslim who converted to Christianity and then took the unprecedented step of seeking official recognition for the change said he had gone into hiding following death threats.
Last year, lawmakers in the western Indian state of Rajasthan made it the latest region in the country to outlaw proselytizing with punishments up to five years in prison. Critics claimed the laws will be used to target Christian missionaries, who are often denounced by Hindu nationalists. But Muslims _ who represent about 14 percent of India’s population _ also say the measures could be used against them.
The discussions over conversions could also spill into the religious politics of Asia, including the alleged persecution of “house churches” in places such as Vietnam and China.
© 2007 The Associated Press