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Proselytizing is the act of attempting to convert people to another opinion and, particularly, another religion. The word proselytize is derived ultimately from the Greek language prefix 'πρός' (towards) and the verb 'έρχομαι' (I come). Historically in the Koine Greek Septuagint and New Testament, the word proselyte denoted a gentile who was considering conversion to Judaism. Though the word proselytism originally referred to Early Christianity (and earlier Godfearers), it is also used to refer to other religions' attempts to convert people to their beliefs or even any attempt to convert people to another point of view, religious or not. Today, the connotations of proselytizing are often negative and the word is commonly used to describe attempts to force, intimidate, or manipulate people to convert.

In Christianity

Statue of Saint Patrick of the Celtic Church, who was famous for proselytizing.

Mark 8:34

Whosoever will come after me—It seems that Christ formed, on the proselytism of the Jews, the principal qualities which he required in the proselytes of his covenant.

The first condition of proselytism among the Jews was, that he that came to embrace their religion should come voluntarily, and that neither force nor influence should be employed in this business. This is also the first condition required by Jesus Christ, and which he considers as the foundation of all the rest:—If a man be willing to come after me.

The second condition required in the Jewish proselyte was, that he should perfectly renounce all his prejudices, his errors, his idolatry, and every thing that concerned his false religion; and that he should entirely separate himself from his most intimate friends and acquaintances. It was on this ground that the Jews called proselytism a new birth, and proselytes new-born, and new men; and our Lord requires men to be born again, not only of water, but by the Holy Ghost. See John 3:5. All this our Lord includes in this word, Let him renounce himself. To this the following scriptures refer: Matthew 10:33; John 3:3, 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:17.

The third condition on which a person was admitted into the Jewish Church as a proselyte was, that he should submit to the yoke of the Jewish law, and bear patiently the inconveniences and sufferings with which a profession of the Mosaic religion might be accompanied. Christ requires the same condition; but, instead of the yoke of the law, he brings in his own doctrine, which he calls his yoke, Matthew 11:29: and his cross, the taking up of which not only implies a bold profession of Christ crucified, but also a cheerful submitting to all the sufferings and persecutions to which he might be exposed, and even to death itself.

The fourth condition was, that they should solemnly engage to continue in the Jewish religion, faithful even unto death. This condition Christ also requires; and it is comprised in this word, Let him FOLLOW me. See the following verses; and see, on the subject of proselytism, Ruth 1:16-17

Adam Clarke's Commentary[1]

Many Christians consider it their obligation to follow what is often termed the Great Commission of Jesus, recorded in the final verses of the Gospel of Matthew: "Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen." The Acts of the Apostles and other sources contain several accounts of early Christians following this directive by engaging in individual conversations and mass sermons to spread the "good news". Evangelical Christians often use the term "witnessing" to mean discussing one's faith with another person with the intent of proselytism.

Most self-described Christian groups have organizations devoted to missionary work which in whole or in part includes proselytism of people of other faiths (including sometimes other variants of Christianity). Groups noted for their extensive proselytism include:

See the article on missionary for more information.

Some Christians define "proselytism" more narrowly as the attempt to convert people from one Christian tradition to another; those who use the term in this way generally view the practice as illegitimate and in contrast to evangelism, which is converting non-Christians to Christianity. An Eastern Orthodox writer, Stephen Methodius Hayes has written: "If people talk about the need for evangelism, they meet with the response, 'the Orthodox church does not proselytize' as if evangelizing and proselytism were the same thing." However the boundary varies from group to group. For instance the Moscow Patriarchate has repeatedly strongly condemned what it describes as Catholic proselytism of Orthodox Christians within Russia and has therefore opposed a Catholic construction project in an area of Russia where the Catholic community is small. The Catholic Church claims that it is supporting the existing Catholic community within Russia and is not proselytizing.[4][5][6] Recently, the Balamand declaration on proselytism was released between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Churches.

Other religions

In Islam, inviting people to the religion is a meritorious activity. Some religions do not accept converts at all (membership is inherited), such as the Druze and some Zoroastrians.

Unlike in the Hellenistic era, in the modern era most branches of Judaism do not actively proselytize to non-Jews. Some groups, however, will encourage nonobservant Jews to be observant, such as Aish HaTorah or Chabad. Reform Judaism has been known to welcome the non-Jewish spouses of already existing mixed marriages to convert to Judaism. Orthodox Judaism usually discourages conversion, but persistent and sincere requests for conversion are conducted.

In ancient times, there have been periods (especially the Hellenistic) in which Jews were more favorable to proselytizing than they are today. Some historians believe that one of the major sources of the early Christian movements were communities of "pagans" who had been attracted to Judaism. However, with the dominance of Christianity and Islam, Jews came to avoid proselytism, since that might incite Christians and Muslims to persecute them.

Buddhist proselytism at the time of king Ashoka (260-218 BCE), according to the Edicts of Ashoka.

Indian religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism are largely pluralistic. Hinduism places faith in a Vedic proclamation which states that "Truth is One, though the sages know it by many names". However, Hinduism does accept reconversion of former Hindus converted into other religions on the basis that though all religions lead to the same goal, the argument cuts both ways. That is, people professing one religion who were converted to another religion were free to come back to their original religion. This 'reconversion' was justifiable since the converts' judgment - especially about their own self-discipline to fight through life's problems, which is sine qua non (indispensable element) in any valid religion for realizing divinity in oneself - might have been deliberately blurred by proselytizers from other religions by fraudulent and distortionist propaganda to increase their flock sizes. Apart from distortionist propaganda against their current religion, proselytizers also exploited the materialistic problems of potential converts, especially disease, and quite adroitly encouraged their blaming of the convert's parent religion, and thus welcomed them to 'embracing' the new religion, offering several allurements by charities of education and jobs, in exchange for 'professing' the new religion.

One group that takes converts in Hinduism, but without calumniating other religions, is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness also known as Hare Krishnas.

The Sikh Gurus (spiritual teacher) have propagated the message of "many paths" leading to the one God and ultimate salvation for all souls who tread on the path of righteousness. They have supported the view that proponents of all faiths can, by doing good and virtuous deeds and by remembering the Lord, certainly achieve salvation. The students of the Sikh faith are told to accept all leading faiths as possible vehicle for attaining spiritual enlightenment provided the faithful study, ponder and practice the teachings of their prophets and leaders. The holy book of the Sikhs called the Sri Guru Granth Sahib says: "Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false." [7] and "The seconds, minutes, and hours, days, weeks and months, and the various seasons originate from the one Sun; O Nanak, in just the same way, the many forms originate from the Creator." [8]

Ethnocentrism of any sort (including the idea of belonging to a 'school of Buddhism' as well as evangelism and religious supremacism) is, according to Buddhist thought, rooted in self-grasping and reified thought - the cause of Samsara itself. The current Dalai Lama has repeatedly argued that any attempt to convert individuals from their beliefs is not only non-Buddhist, but abusive: the identification of evangelism as an expression of compassion is considered to be false, and indeed the idea that Buddhism is the only true path is likewise false for Buddhists.

Mahavira (599-527 BCE), the 24th Tirthankara of Jainism, developed an early philosophy regarding relativism and subjectivism known as Anekantavada. As a result of this acceptance of alternate religious practices, the phenomenon of proselytisation is largely absent in these religions but not unknown.

Views on proselytism

Legitimate versus illegitimate proselytism

The difference between legitimate proselytism and illegitimate proselytism may not be definable. What one person considers legitimate, another may consider improper or even illegal. Proselytism can include:

  • No attempt to convert others unless they specifically ask about one's religion
  • Preaching
  • Providing physical benefits in hopes that recipients will be open to listening
  • Providing physical benefits only to those willing to listen
  • Providing physical benefits only to proselytes
  • Forcing people to become proselytes

Illustrating the problems that can arise from such subjective viewpoints is this extract from an article by Dr. C. Davis, published in Cleveland State University's Journal of Law and Health:

According to the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Jews for Jesus and Hebrew Christians constitute two of the most dangerous cults, and its members are appropriate candidates for deprogramming. Anti-cult evangelicals ... protest that “aggressiveness and proselytising ... are basic to authentic Christianity,” and that Jews for Jesus and Campus Crusade for Christ are not to be labelled as cults. Furthermore, certain Hassidic groups who physically attacked a meeting of the Hebrew Christian “cult” have themselves been labelled a “cult” and equated with the followers of Reverend Moon, by none other than the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.[9]

Propriety of proselytism

Views on the propriety of different types of proselytism differ radically. Some feel that freedom of speech should have no limits and that virtually anyone, anywhere should have the right to talk about anything they see fit. Others see all sorts of proselytism as a nuisance and an intrusion and would like to see them restricted (either completely or to a limited arena). Thus, Prof. Natan Lerner of Tel Aviv University observes that the issue is one of a clash of rights—the perceived right of a person to express his or her views versus the perceived right of a person not to be exposed to views that he or she does not wish to hear.

Some don't mind preaching but are concerned if the speech is accompanied by physical benefits (e.g., a soup kitchen that provides food, but only under the condition that the recipients listen to an evangelical discourse) or new converts are given physical benefits not available to those who don't convert. Others are concerned if the preaching is aimed at children without the knowledge and consent of the parents.

Legal standpoint

From a legal standpoint (international, as well the European Union, or nationally India, Canada and the United States), there do appear to be certain criteria in distinguishing licit from illicit proselytism:

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Article 18 states:
  1. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.
  2. No one shall be subject to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.
  3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health, or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
  4. The States Parties to the present Covenant undertake to have respect for the liberty of parents and, when applicable, legal guardians to ensure the religious and moral education of their children in conformity with their own convictions.
The first amendments to the constitutions of United States and India, the European Union Charter of Human Rights and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms provide that all people have:
  • the right to have religious beliefs (or to not have religious beliefs) (Freedom of Religion);
  • the right to form organizations for the purpose of worship, as well as for promoting their cause (Freedom of Association); and
  • the right to speak to others about their convictions, with the purpose of influencing the others. (Freedom of Speech).

By the same token, these very rights exercise a limiting influence on the freedoms of others. For instance, the right to have one's religious (or non-religious) beliefs presumably includes the right not to be coerced by the government into changing these beliefs by threats, discrimination, or similar inducements.


Proselytism is considered inappropriate and not protected in certain environments open to the public or are owned privately: government buildings, public education (grade schools and college campuses), the workplace and private properties like ones' home or front yard.

In Islam, the Qur'an states "Let there be no compulsion in the religion: Surely the Right Path is clearly distinct from the crooked path." (Al-Baqarah, 2:256) which is taken by Muslim scholors that force is not to be used to convert someone to Islam.

Limits on proselytism is a combination of what is considered legal (and this varies from country to country) and what is considered moral (and this varies from person to person).

Some countries such as Greece prohibit all proselytism, some such as Morocco prohibit it except for Islam and in Canada or certain parts of the USA, sociocultural norms suggest proselytism is improper. Some restrict it in various ways such as prohibiting attempts to convert children or prohibit offering physical benefits to new converts.

Religious groups also draw lines between what they are willing to do or not do to convert people. For instance the Roman Catholic Church in Ad Gentes states that "The Church strictly forbids forcing anyone to embrace the Faith, or alluring or enticing people by worrisome wiles." The World Council of Churches in The Challenge of of Proselytism and the Calling to Common Witness states the following: (Note: this document uses proselytism in the negative sense only.[10]

19. Proselytism as described in this document stands in opposition to all ecumenical effort. It includes certain activities which often aim at having people change their church affiliation and which we believe must be avoided, such as the following:
  • making unjust or uncharitable references to other churches’ beliefs and practices and even ridiculing them;
  • comparing two Christian communities by emphasizing the achievements and ideals of one, and the weaknesses and practical problems of the other;
  • employing any kind of physical violence, moral compulsion and psychological pressure e.g. the use of certain advertising techniques in mass media that might bring undue pressure on readers/viewers;
  • using political, social and economic power as a means of winning new members for one’s own church;
  • extending explicit or implicit offers of education, health care or material inducements or using financial resources with the intent of making converts;
  • manipulative attitudes and practices that exploit people’s needs, weaknesses or lack of education especially in situations of distress, and fail to respect their freedom and human dignity.

History of proselytism

Since the collapse of the former Soviet Union and the rise of democracy in the Eastern Bloc, the Russian Orthodox Church has enjoyed a revival. However, it takes exception to what it considers illegitimate proselytising by the Roman Catholic Church (even though the Catholic Church had been set up in Russia before the Soviet Block severely limited the contacts of Catholics with the outside world), the  Salvation Army, Jehovah's Witnesses and other religious movements in what it refers to as its canonical territory.[11]

Greece has a long history of conflict, mostly with Jehovah's Witnesses but also with some Pentecostals over its laws on proselytism. This situation stems from a law passed in the 1930s by the dictator Ioannis Metaxas. A Jehovah's Witness, Minos Kokkinakis, won 3,189,500 drachmas (US $10,600) in damages from the Greek state after being arrested repeatedly for preaching his faith from door to door. In another case, Larissis vs. Greece, a member of the Pentecostal church also won a case in the European Court of Human Rights..

See also


External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Proselytism. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.