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Americans are often surprised to learn that many foreign countries have anti-proselytism laws. Often, these laws define proselytism as something beyond run-of-the-mill evangelizing. Proselytism typically connotes coercion and undue influence: the religious hard sell. Encouraging listeners to convert in exchange for food or money would qualify, for example; persuading listeners that your faith is the true one would not. On this view, proselytism is a sort of religious unfair trade practice, and anti-proselytism laws a consumer protection device.

I’m ambivalent about these laws in principle. History contains many examples of missionaries who exploited the poverty and ignorance of their listeners, and it seems to me societies could have a legitimate interest in discouraging that sort of thing. Not all countries have signed up for the American version of the religious free market, after all, nor does civilization require them to do so.

But anti-proselytism laws have two major flaws. First, as a  recent UN report  argues, it is very difficult to draw a line between proselytism and protected religious expression. When does evangelism become coercive? When the missionaries establish a soup kitchen? Or a school? It’s very easy for religious competitors to fabricate evidence of missionaries’ bad faith. History contains many examples of that, too.

Second, and more important, anti-proselytism laws are often written and applied in transparently one-sided ways. Many Muslim-majority countries, for example, prohibit only proselytism directed at Muslims. Proselytism directed at non-Muslims is legal. And one doesn’t need to engage in coercion or bad faith to violate these laws. Straightforward evangelism will do.

Events in Libya this past weekend provide an illustration. Libya arrested four foreign nationals and  charged them with proselytism —a crime that carries the death penalty. Apparently, the four were caught printing and distributing Bibles. A report in the  Guardian  reveals the locals’ shock that anyone would have the gall to do such a thing:

Benghazi lawyer and human rights activist Bilal Bettamer said Libya was a wholly Muslim country and Christians should not be trying to spread their faith. “It is disrespectful. If we had Christianity we could have dialogue, but you can’t just spread Christianity,” he said. “The maximum penalty is the death penalty. It’s a dangerous thing to do.”

And this guy is a human rights activist. Even Christians expressed dismay at what the foreigners were accused of doing, though perhaps Libyan Christians have no other choice. According to the local Anglican priest:
the five Christian churches in Tripoli have a tacit agreement with the authorities not to proselytize. “We don’t distribute literature, so we don’t have any problems,” he told the  Guardian . “It is better not to indulge in these activities because we respect Libyans. We respect their religion.”

As of Monday, the foreigners have also been  charged with espionage . The prisoners have been given access to their embassies, but one of the four, a Christian from Egypt, told reporters he had not requested assistance. He assumes the Egyptian government will do nothing to help him.

Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.

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