Progress towards a Christian "code of conduct" on religious conversion

With Evangelical and Pentecostal representatives joining in at an 8-12 August consultation in Toulouse, the joint Vatican-World Council of Churches study process on religious conversion gets one step closer to its goal of a common code of conduct in seeking converts to Christianity.

Kicked off in May last year at a meeting that affirmed freedom of religion as a "non-negotiable" human right valid for everyone everywhere and at the same time stressed that the "obsession of converting others" needs to be cured, the three-year joint study process moves now into its second phase. Intended as an intra-Christian discussion - whereas the first encounter featured participants from different faiths - the project's second phase will consist of a high-level theological consultation entitled "Towards an ethical approach to conversion: Christian witness in a multi-religious world." The consultation continues at the Institute of Science and Theology of Religions (ISTR) in Toulouse, France, from 8-12 August.

At the consultation, some 30 Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Pentecostal and Evangelical theologians and church representatives will aim to articulate what a common code of conduct on religious conversion should look like from a Christian viewpoint.

"Conversion is a controversial issue not only in interreligious relations, but in intra-Christian relations as well," says Rev. Dr Hans Ucko, WCC's programme executive for inter-religious dialogue and cooperation. "In Latin America it is a source of tension between the Roman Catholic Church and the Pentecostal movement, while in other regions Orthodox churches often feel 'targeted' by some Protestant missionary groups."

"Since there are many accusations of 'sheep stealing' among Christians we will most likely also focus on this issue. The consultation in Toulouse will be the opportunity for doing so," Ucko adds.

The three-year study project jointly undertaken by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue and the WCC's programme on inter-religious dialogue and cooperation bears the name: "An interreligious reflection on conversion: From controversy to a shared code of conduct." It was launched in May 2006 in Lariano/Velletri, near Rome, and aims to produce a code of conduct on religious conversion commonly agreed among Christians by 2010.

"Evangelical and Pentecostal representatives will be taking part in the dialogue for the first time, and we see this as a good sign for the eventual success of this project," WCC spokesman Juan Michel told The Washington Post.

The two strongly proselytising sects, which have made heavy inroads into membership of other Christian groupings especially in Latin America, Africa and Asia, stood aloof when the effort was launched at a meeting near Rome in May last year.

But this time senior figures from both - German-based philosopher Thomas Schirrmacher of a group called WEA and Bishop Tony Richie of the Church of God in the United States - will attend, although in their personal rather than institutional capacity.

"We have always wanted this process to be inclusive and open, so that all religious partners from Christian faiths and others can make a contribution towards the shaping of the code," said Michel.

WCC officials say the code should help ease relations with other faiths, especially with Islamic leaders who regard individual Muslims who convert as apostates. In some countries, these face the death penalty if they do not recant.

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