News Articles

Freedoms restricted? Sri Lankan cabinet approves law outlawing conversions

DUBLIN, Ireland (BP)–The Sri Lankan Cabinet has granted initial approval of a draft bill designed to prevent religious conversions, according to a June 24 report by Compass Direct news service.

The Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, approved June 18, will now be revised by the government’s legal draftsmen before being enacted as law, Compass Direct reported.

Two separate acts were initially proposed to parliament — one by the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya, a minority party allied with President Chandrika Kumaratunga, and one by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the Minister for Buddha Sasana (Buddhist Affairs), the news service noted.

The draft bill on prohibition of forcible conversion proposed by the JHU was released in late May. It advocated fines of up to $5,027 and a maximum of seven years in prison for anyone involved in illegal conversion, Compass Direct said. Both the convert and the person responsible for his or her conversion would suffer penalties if found guilty.

The JHU bill was scheduled for presentation to parliament June 8, but the JHU announced in parliament that morning that they would not vote with the government on any issue. A scuffle broke out between the JHU and members of the opposition, and parliament was dissolved. Further sessions were postponed until July 20, according to Compass Direct.

Under the terms of the Sri Lankan constitution, once a law has been passed by parliament, there is no opportunity for judicial review. If the JHU bill had been presented June 8, opponents would have had only seven days to present their objections to the Supreme Court.

Following the suspension of parliament June 8, Wickremanayake presented his own draft bill to the cabinet. The Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, much wider in scope than the one proposed by the JHU, was based on recommendations put forward by the Buddha Sasana Commission of 2002, Compass Direct noted.

The 2002 commission called for the introduction of anti-conversion laws and the creation of an informal court system or “Sanghadhikarana,” presided over by Buddhist monks. The Sanghadhikarana would resolve village level disputes without reference to the police or courts of law.

Compass Direct said observers are concerned that the introduction of the Sanghadhikarana in tandem with anti-conversion laws could have serious implications for religious minorities.

Wickremanayake’s bill effectively makes conversion from one religion to another under any circumstances a criminal offense. Section 2 stipulates that no person shall convert or attempt to convert or aid or abet acts of conversion of a person to a different religion.

If the bill becomes law, Sri Lanka will break with several international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Compass Direct reported. The ICCPR stipulates that no one should be subject to coercion, which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion of his own choice. Anti-conversion legislation itself could be seen as a form of coercion.

Despite this, Sri Lanka seems determined to adopt legislation modeled after similar laws in India.

The campaign to introduce anti-conversion laws began soon after the Buddha Sasana Commission in 2002 and intensified in 2003, with 91 attacks on Christians and churches last year.

Until the campaign began, most Buddhists in Sri Lanka lived peacefully with adherents of other faiths. But in 2002, senior Buddhist clergy became disturbed by the decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas. The 2002 commission was an attempt to address this issue. One source confirmed to Compass that, during the commission’s tenure, the clergy laid out a clear strategy to suppress the growth of Christianity and stir up popular opposition to the Christian faith.

In September 2003, more than 1,500 Buddhist monks gathered for an anti-conversion rally in Colombo. They accused Christians of offering financial enticements to the poor to encourage them to convert — a claim which Christians vehemently denied.

Tensions increased in December 2003 when the well-known Buddhist monk Gangodawila Soma, a key figure in the anti-conversion campaign, died of a heart attack while traveling in Russia. Christians were immediately accused of a conspiracy leading to his death, despite three autopsies showing that Soma died of natural causes.

In January 2004, a group of Buddhist monks launched a fast, demanding that the government enact anti-conversion laws within the next 60 days. Parliament agreed in principle and the fast was called off.

But when President Chandrika Kumaratunga dissolved parliament in February and called for snap elections, the introduction of the new law was postponed. The Buddhist clergy immediately formed the JHU party to contest the elections in April. They won nine seats and eventually formed an alliance with the president, effectively giving them considerable power in government.

The JHU now finds itself in a difficult position, Compass Direct observed. Having vowed not to vote with the government on any issue, they are now unable to vote in favor of the new legislation.

Even as the cabinet gave initial approval for the new legislation, a fresh attack was underway. On June 18, several Buddhist monks drove through the village of Wadduwa in a van, calling residents to a protest march the following day.

On June 19, about 50 monks led a crowd of 150 people to the local Christian Fellowship Church and staged a protest rally. Police officers arrived at the scene but were unable to control the mob. The crowd broke into the church, threw chairs at the altar, pulled down Scripture banners and verbally threatened the daughters of the pastor, who was absent at the time.

On Sunday, June 20, police officers assigned to protect the church arrived before the morning service and managed to prevent a small group of protestors from breaking into the building, Compass Direct recounted. But a larger crowd of 200 people soon arrived, waving banners and placards. Bricks, stones and petrol bombs were thrown at the church, damaging the roof and windows. Police officers used tear gas in an effort to dispel the crowd; in return, they were pelted with stones.

The pastor was finally forced to announce that he would suspend all meetings at the church.

The disturbance in Wadduwa was the latest in a series of 50 incidents throughout Sri Lanka in the first six months of 2004.

Sri Lankan Christians have asked the international community to support them in protest against the new legislation, according to Compass Direct.

The bill is intended to strengthen the “mutual trust/unity that exists among religions and with a view to protecting the religious freedom that people have enjoyed in the past. An act to provide for the prohibition of conversion to another religion forcibly or by use of force or inducement, or by fraud, or by unethical means or in any other manner ….”

The key focus of the bill appears to be on the person responsible for the conversion, rather than the person who actually converts, although both are covered by the bill, Compass Direct reported.

Section 2 states: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert another person to another religion, and no person shall provide assistance or encouragement towards such conversion to another religion.”

Sections 3, 4 and 5 deal with “conversion by force,” which includes persuading someone to attend “prayers or prayer meetings of any religion of which he is not a member.” This applies particularly to any employer or person holding a position of trust or responsibility, including teachers, hospital staff and children’s caregivers, Compass Direct said.

Under Section 5(v), if conversion is “committed” by a group of persons, “every director or shareholder … partner, member, employee or officer of that group or company shall be guilty of an offense.”

Under Section 5(vi), any non-permanent citizen of Sri Lanka who is found guilty of an offense under the act may be expelled from the republic and banned from re-entry, according to Compass Direct.

Under Section 6, court action against conversion may be initiated by the police, by any person “affected aggrieved by an offense” or by anyone “interested in the welfare of the public who has reason to believe that the provisions of this Act have been contravened.”
Copyright 2004 Compass Direct, a news service based in Santa Ana, Calif., focusing on Christians worldwide who are persecuted for their faith. Used by permission.

    About the Author

  • Staff