Debate Continues on Sri Lanka Anti-Conversion Law

Monday, September 13, 2004

Buddhist monks lobby for international support of controversial bill.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, September 13 (Compass) -- Buddhist monks from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party have launched an international campaign to win support for a proposed anti-conversion bill in Sri Lanka. The monks have met with representatives at the United States, United Kingdom, Canadian, Indian, Australian, French and German embassies in Sri Lanka, according to local press reports.

Mr. Peter Hughs, the acting British High Commissioner, met with the JHU on August 25. According to an article in the Sinhala newspaper Divaina on August 26, the Commissioner told the JHU, “Christian fundamentalists cause problems not only to Buddhists, but to Catholics, and traditional religions must work together against fundamentalists.”

A small delegation of monks led by the Ven. Athureliye Rathana Thero, a JHU member of Parliament, also attended the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association Summit in Ottawa, Canada, in early September. Sources say the JHU lobbied for support at the summit.

A JHU delegation is also expected to visit North America and the U.K. later this year.

Meanwhile, Christian advocacy groups seem confused by a Supreme Court announcement in August that two articles of the proposed bill are unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court ruled that Section 3 and 4(b) of the bill violate Article 10 of the constitution. Article 10 guarantees the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice.

Yet the Bill for Prohibition of Forcible Conversion has not been overturned. On the contrary, it may still be presented to Parliament for a final vote. However, if the two contentious articles are not amended, the bill will not become law unless it gains a two-thirds majority vote in Parliament and passes a public referendum.

Senior church leaders in Sri Lanka say they fear complacency may set in among local Christians and foreign advocacy groups in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.

Even if the JHU bill fails in Parliament, the similar “Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom” proposed by Minister of Buddhist Affairs Ratnasiri Wickremanayake may be adopted. (See Compass Direct, “Sri Lankan Cabinet Approves Anti-Conversion Law,” June 24, 2004.)

However, not all Buddhists in Sri Lanka support the idea of anti-conversion legislation. An ongoing debate in newspaper opinion columns and online forums shows that many lay Buddhists, in fact, oppose it.

For example, Linda van Schagen, writing to the Sunday Leader on August 28, said the JHU bill would only encourage “religious division and hatred.”

One irate Buddhist castigated the JHU in an online forum in July, saying that corruption and mismanagement were responsible for the decline of Buddhism, rather than the activity of fundamentalist Christians.

Another writer told an online forum on August 30: “I am from Negombo which has churches, mosques and temples within a couple of kilometers. I have friends from all religions. It is disgusting to see religion [made into an issue] by some for their own sinister motives.”

Historically, the Buddhist temple was at the center of Sri Lankan village life, providing education, acting as a moral guardian and settling disputes. In modern Sri Lanka, however, some Buddhists have accused the monks of corruption and neglecting traditional duties.

Monks in turn are alarmed at the decrease in numbers attending the temple. The decline in Buddhism directly affects the monks, who rely on the generosity of temple donors to meet their daily expenses.

Corruption among Buddhist monks has raised considerable anger in some quarters. “To the men in robes -- you are always taking from society -- what are you giving back?” wrote another contributor to the Indo Lanka online forum on August 30. “Put your house in order and people will not move!”

Sri Lankan citizens also report seeing Buddhist monks, supposedly dedicated to a lifestyle of asceticism, driving BMW’s while clutching state-of-the-art mobile phones.

Meanwhile, Christian leaders in Sri Lanka have pleaded with advocacy groups to continue their work on behalf of minority religions in Sri Lanka.

“The danger of the anti-conversion bill remains very real,” said a representative from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

“The resolve of the JHU to see it through can be seen by these unprecedented moves of monks paying visits to foreign embassies and governments to lobby support for their cause.”