Sri Lanka’s minorities oppose anti-conversion bill

Colombo, Aug 2 – Christian groups are strongly opposing Sri Lanka’s move to introduce a bill banning religious conversions, with the Supreme Court also receiving 25 petitions in its favour and 21 against it, placing the government in a tight spot, reports OneWorld.

While the bill was tabled in parliament as a private member motion by opposition parliamentarian Omalpe Sobhitha of the all monks party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), it is considered a test run for the ruling United People’s Freedom Alliance (UPFA), which had earlier promised to table a similar one.

After the controversial bill was tabled, it was opposed by both the Catholic Church and the Christian Council, both of whom had earlier been condemning fundamentalist groups.

Protesting that the bill would impinge on the fundamental rights of individuals, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the Christian Council issued a joint statement saying: “We wish to state that if they are enacted into legislation, the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of all Sri Lankans will be seriously eroded…these drafts contravene the fundamental human rights of our people enshrined in our Constitution as well as accepted prevailing international conventions and norms.”

In a bid to allay the fears of the established churches, the country’s leading Buddhist organisations issued a statement saying the bill’s purpose was to monitor the “unchecked activities of Christian fundamentalists” who were posing a threat to the “1,000 years of religious harmony maintained in this country”.

Says Indrani Devendra, secretary of the All Ceylon Women’s Buddhist Congress, “The bill is aimed at minimising the tension created by fundamentalist groups whose provocative conduct made even sections of the Buddhists react violently.

“Unless we keep a tab on the pernicious fundamentalists, the situation is very likely to go out of hand.”

But Catholics and Christians fear that given the over zealousness of law enforcement agencies, there is a strong possibility of the laws being abused.

Says Bishop of Batticaloa Kingsley Swamipillai, “There are fears that routine events organised by the Church could be misinterpreted as ones to attract potential converts.”

As he points out, “While we condemn the activities of fundamentalist sects who have created problems, we believe rigid laws with heavy fines and prison sentences are not the solution.”

Agrees activist of the Christian sect Assembly of God, Bandula Jayamanna, himself a Christian convert, “Religion is a very personal thing and nobody can force anyone to convert to another religion in a country like Sri Lanka. If that happens, they can always go and lodge a harassment complaint at the police station.”

He warns, “These kind of blanket laws will only encourage those out to crush minority religions to take the law into their hands.”

But there is a lobby that believes the country needs to adopt stringent anti-conversion laws.

K. Vigneswaran, adviser to Hindu Affairs Minister Douglas Devananda, remarks that there are very disturbing reports from the predominantly Hindu Northern province and the Indian Tamil areas in the central province about major moves to convert the poor to fundamentalist sects by promising various perks. He believes these groups pose a bigger threat to Hindus than to Buddhists.

The Hindu Affairs Minister of the previous United National Front (UNF) government alleged that nearly 15,000 Hindus in the North-East and Central province became fundamentalist sects due to discrimination and unethical measures adopted over the last couple of years.

The Roman Catholic Church here issued two statements early this year condemning fundamentalist Christian groups for employing unethical tactics such as offering material rewards for conversion, and posing a threat to the co-existence of diverse religious groups in the country.

Reportedly some of these groups were forcing Buddhists to smash Buddha statues and eat sweets fashioned in the shape of Lord Buddha.

An independent commission appointed to examine allegations by the Ministry of Buddhist Affairs last year accused 188 NGOs of engaging in unethical conversions.

Currently, Christian sects form less than one percent of the country’s 19 million population, while the Catholics total 6.4 percent, and Hindus number 15 percent. Buddhists constitute 70 percent of the country’s population.

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