Researcher speaks on religious freedom, meets pope

Pope-and-presenters-web
Pope Francis receives a book from Thomas Farr, director of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University. The pope greeted the 40 or so conference participants at the Vatican Dec. 13. — Photo by Donald Miller

Goshen, Dock grad shares research on tension Christians face in India at international conference in Rome

by Kelli YoderMennonite World Review (reposted by permission)

Halfway through a conference on Christianity and freedom, Chad Bauman and his fellow presenters were told the schedule had changed.

The next morning they crossed the street from the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome and met the pope.

“In my wildest imagination I had thought, ‘Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if I’d be able to meet the pope,’ ” said Bauman, who is associate professor and chair of religion at Butler University in Indianapolis. “But there was nothing on the schedule to indicate anything like that might happen.”

The international conference, held Dec. 13-14 to discuss Christian contributions to the idea of freedom and restrictions Christians face with regard to religious liberties, had come to the attention of Vatican officials.

Conference organizer Timothy Shah said the meeting was completely unexpected, but reflected the Pope’s commitment to religious freedom.

Bauman
Bauman

“And [it reflected] his concern to highlight the terrible situation of persecuted Christians in many parts of the world, especially the Middle East,” Shah said.

Bauman said of all the popes in his lifetime this was the one he wanted to meet.

“There’s such energy and enthusiasm about him, and indications that he could have a massive positive impact on the world because of the positions he’s taken on social issues and the size of the Roman Catholic church,” he said. “It just topped off a really wonderful time in Rome.”

And he said it increased the energy for the rest of the conference — one he already found to be faster-moving and more lively than academic conferences at which he’s accustomed to presenting his research on religious conflict in India.

This conference, “Christianity and Freedom: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” was held as part of the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs in Washington, D.C.

Shah, who is the associate director of the Religious Freedom Project, said an effort was made to connect journalists and policy makers to the conference.

“As a result, we designed each panel to be a brisk, concise, free-flowing conversation, rather than a series of long academic presentations,” he said.

Bauman, who grew up in Souderton, Pa., and is a graduate of Christopher Dock Mennonite High School, Goshen (Ind.) College and Princeton Theological Seminary, was one of about 40 people asked to write chapters for an upcoming volume or volumes on Christian freedom on behalf of the project.

The conference presentation came after a year of research on Christian contributions to freedom and civil society in India, as well as on their occasional experiences of harassment and violence. Bauman worked with a research partner, James Ponniah, of Jnana Deepa Vidyapeeth, a Catholic university in Pune, India.

Provocative evangelism

The center’s larger project will study all religions and their access to freedom.

“Christians are not the only people around the world suffering difficulties because of their faith,” Bauman said.

Christians sometimes invite the hostility of others by engaging in provocative forms of evangelism, he said. They have exploited their occasionally greater access to Western wealth and political power to gain advantages over people of other faiths.

“Christians in places like India are suffering, and that’s truly awful,” he said. “But I think we also need to investigate the reasons why they are suffering and see if there are things they, or even their Western Christian supporters, could do differently to ameliorate the situation.”

Bauman’s research describes how Christians and Hindus coexisted relatively peacefully for a thousand years in India and how tensions have emerged more recently largely as a result of European colonialism and everything which came along with it — including Christian missions, of which Mennonites were a part.

“Now Christianity is very much associated with Western power and globalization in ways that make people skeptical about it and make people fear its influence,” he said.

Bauman’s research in India originated in the state of Chhattisgarh, and his own past.

“I first got interested in that state when I was doing my dissertation research because Mennonite missionaries had worked there,” he said.

His research eventually moved to cover a different group of Christians.

“One of the reasons that I’m interested in efforts to alleviate violence clearly has to do with my education at Christopher Dock and Goshen, and the emphasis those institutions place on peace and nonviolence and especially on understanding the causes of violence,” he said.

Bauman said it’s difficult to measure the impact of an academic conference. But this one was different.

“The organizers of this conference are really good at trying to bridge the gap between journalist and academic,” he said. “I’m sure it will have more of an impact than most scholarly conferences do.”

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