Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka Threaten to 'Fast Unto Death'

Thursday, December 9, 2004

Monks demand changes to constitution and adoption of anti-conversion laws.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass) -- Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka have declared a “fast unto death” beginning December 12 if the government does not concede to a proposed constitutional amendment and the adoption of anti-conversion laws.

The Ven. Omalpe Sobhitha, a Buddhist monk and member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, appeared on national television on December 1 and demanded three major concessions from the government.

His list included a presidential inquiry into the death of the Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero in December 2003, closing down all liquor outlets in supermarkets, and specifying a time frame to vote on proposed anti-conversion legislation in Parliament.

If these demands are not met by 6 a.m. on December 12, the anniversary of Soma’s death, the JHU would begin a fast unto death.

Soma, a prominent Sri Lankan monk, died last year while traveling in Russia. The Buddhist elite immediately blamed Christians for his death, despite three separate autopsies that proved he had died of natural causes.

Soma’s death led to a flurry of attacks on churches and Christian institutions in the lead-up to his funeral service on Christmas Eve, 2003. President Chandrika Kumaratunga refused a request to hold the funeral on Christmas Day and posted police guards at many churches in an effort to prevent violence.

Soma had spearheaded the campaign to introduce anti-conversion laws, modeled on similar laws in India, which would prevent conversion from one religion to another. Christian lawyers and advocacy groups say two draft bills proposed this year, one by the JHU and one by the Minister of Buddhist Affairs, clearly target Christian conversions.

In January, a group of senior Buddhist monks declared a 60-day fast that was cut short when President Kumaratunga dissolved Parliament and called for snap elections on April 2.

For the first time in Sri Lankan history, the monks put together their own political party, the JHU, which won nine seats in Parliament. The monks then used their new political leverage to introduce a draft of the Bill on the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions in June.

The JHU bill proposed five- to seven-year prison sentences and fines of up to 500,000 rupees ($5,027) for anyone convicted of “forcible conversion.”

A second Bill for the Protection of Religious Freedom, proposed by the Minister of Buddhist Affairs, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, was initially approved by the cabinet in the absence of the president. However, Wickremanayake has not yet presented his bill for a final vote.

According to local media reports, the Supreme Court ruled in August that two clauses of the JHU bill were unconstitutional. The monks could either write a new draft or call for a public referendum. If the referendum is successful, a larger than usual two-thirds majority of the votes of the entire Parliament would be required to pass the bill into law.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) reported that the JHU accepted the ruling of the Supreme Court and announced it would table a new draft within the next six months.

Senior monks then turned their attention to the constitution itself, proposing an amendment which would strengthen the position of Buddhism by making it the “state religion,” rather than the “foremost” religion as it is considered at present. A notification of the 19th Amendment was published in the Government Gazette on October 29.

Under the current terms of the constitution, government officials are required to “protect and nurture Buddhism.” However under Article 9.5 of the proposed amendment, converting Buddhists to other forms of worship or “spreading other forms of worship among the Buddhists” would be prohibited.

The new law would also “provide for binding persons practicing Buddhism to bring up their offspring in the same faith.”

These proposals are contrary to international definitions of religious freedom. For example, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Sri Lanka is a signatory, states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Christian leaders say the JHU has capitalized on public sentiment surrounding the anniversary of Soma’s death. They fear the Buddhist elite may use this opportunity to stir up further incidents of violence against Christians.

A series of attacks on churches or Christian institutions reported by NCEASL over the past four months prove that these sentiments are still very much alive in the Buddhist heartland of Sri Lanka.