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 Global Perspective

July 20, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 13

Rukshan Fernando
Rukshan Fernando, former Asian Coordinator of the International Young Christian Students Movement (IYCSM) works with the Caritas Sri Lanka National Office coordinating the National Peace Program.


Christians fear laws could constrain religious practice

By Rukshan Fernando

Editor's Note: This is an unfolding story. Watch for updates.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- Parliament is to begin this week consideration of two draft bills aimed at prohibiting unethical religious conversions. Christians, about 8 percent of this South Asian island nation's 19 million people, fear that if passed, these laws will infringe on the freedom to practice their religion.

About 70 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, and Buddhism infuses the country's culture and politics. From the time of the monarchs through colonization to the present, the country's rulers have considered the protection and promotion of Buddhism as a main priority. The country's constitution gives "a foremost place to Buddhism."

In May, a member of Parliament from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU or National Heritage Party), a newly formed party of Buddhist monks, proposed the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religion Bill. Later, the government drafted a similar bill, Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, which was approved by the Cabinet.

The present controversy's origin relates to allegations that Christians are offering financial and material benefits to lure members of the country's poor and impoverished Buddhists to convert to Christianity.

Catholics number about 1.33 million in Sri Lanka, and other mainline Christians about 190,000. Very small but growing are groups of independent evangelical churches. These distinctions, however, are not clearly understood outside the Christian communities.

In the recent past, Catholic leaders have had problems of their own with the evangelical churches attracting members from among the Catholic faithful. Last year, Sri Lanka's Catholic bishops conference issued a statement saying it had no intention to convert people of other religions by wrongful and illegitimate means. The bishops also said they were deeply concerned by the social unrest caused by reported activities of some fundamentalist churches.

On June 29, the bishops and the National Christian Council, which represents mainline Protestant churches, issued a joint statement saying they have recognized that "for some time now, there has been growing anxiety and agitation over unethical conversions." They wrote: "We do not condone any unethical practices or any form of compulsions and categorically denounce them."

The statement continued: "We reiterate our call to work together as leaders of all religions in our country to address this situation. We are always ready and willing to participate in any process that would ease religious tensions, identify practices that injure the religious susceptibility of any community and work towards greater religious harmony in our country."

However, the statement emphasized that "enacting legislation will not solve the problem" and that "it will create problems of its own." The Christian leaders said they fear the law would criminalize some religious practices and could pave the way for oppression of minority religions.

The bills introduced to Parliament would imposes fines of between U.S. $1,500 and U.S. $5,000 and jail sentences of up to seven years for a person found guilty of using force, allurement or fraudulent means to convert a person to another religion.

One bill would require a person converting and a person performing an initiation ceremony to report the acts to a regional government official. This would almost certainly cover any priest performing a baptism.

The Catholic bishops also fear that their various charity and social justice activities could be criminalized on the assertion that they serve as allurements to the poor people being served.

The Catholic bishops and the National Christian Council have been actively organizing opposition to the bill, and they have received some interreligious support. While passage of these bills is uncertain, many people here worry about deepening divisions among religions.

Javed Yosuf, a prominent Muslim human rights activist, has said that minorities have contributed much to the development of society, and they must feel safe and well represented.

Venerable Madampagama Asaji Thero, president of the Inter Religious Peace Foundation and veteran activist in promoting ethnic and religious harmony, said that Buddhism promotes religious freedom, and that while he condemns the offering of material benefits with the aim of converting people, he believes that legislative measures will not help to address this type of problem.

"There should be freedom for any person to convert from one religion to another based on deep study and personal convictions," said the monk.

Shaneez Hassan, a Catholic youth leader in Colombo, the capital, told me that she has a friend who is on the verge of converting to Christianity and wants to rush through the usual process before any bill is passed.

Hassan, whose mother is Catholic and father is Muslim, also emphasized that this would lead to more tensions between religious communities, at a time when the country is struggling to promote ethnic harmony and find a solution to the ethnic conflict.

On July 5, Archbishop Oswald Gomis and Auxiliary Bishop Marius Peiris met with the priests of the Colombo archdiocese to discuss launching a campaign to oppose these bills through petitions, protests and awareness programs. Among the topics of discussion were suggestions for alternative methods to combat unethical conversions. These included establishing an inter-religious commission with the power of mediation to examine allegations of unethical conversions.

One thing is clear: The Christian leaders are proceeding determinedly but cautiously. An aggressive response may stop the legislature, but that would be of little use if it polarizes the Christian and Buddhist communities.

At this time of public examination, it would also be good for the church to reflect on why the inter-religious dialogue and activities it has supported at various levels have not helped to evolve wider public support from Buddhists on this issue.

One of my friends, a Buddhist monk, has told me he doesn't agree with the proposed bills, but when I asked him last night if I could quote him in this column, he said definitely no. Another Buddhist monk with whom I work closely told me that he knows Catholics are not involved in unethical conversions, but he too resisted my challenge to take a public position. He said his Buddhist colleagues already call him Palliye Sadu (monk of the church) because of his involvement with our activities.

The best course of action seems to be to tackle the issue from a human rights perspective, joining hands with like-minded people from all religions. Both bills threaten religious freedom, which is part of our Constitution. The bills violate international agreements that Sri Lanka has ratified, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

At a national level, complaints should be filed with the National Human Rights Commission, and the bills could be challenged in the Supreme Courts. On the international front, complaints could be lodged with the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Religious Intolerance as well with the U.N. Human Rights Committee. To pursue these courses, however, the church will have to weather criticism of its selective and inconsistent involvement in human rights issues.

In the long term, this issue shows that the church in Sri Lanka has a long way to go in winning the trust and respect of the majority communities and truly become a church of Sri Lanka.

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