Sri Lanka: The Politics of Conversion

Friday, July 15, 2005

Second anti-conversion bill “Gazetted” as parliament splits over tsunami-aid deal.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, July 14 (Compass) -- Anti-conversion laws are once again on the agenda in Sri Lanka after a fall-out in parliament that left President Chandrika Kumaratunga desperately in need of Buddhist support.

Two separate anti-conversion bills proposed by the Minister of Buddhist Affairs and the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party had been put on hold as the government turned to more pressing issues in the aftermath of the December 2004 tsunami.

The Tamil community had complained about tsunami relief funds not reaching northern Sri Lanka, an area still held by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE).

The LTTE began fighting for an independent Tamil homeland in 1983. A ceasefire signed in 2002 established an uneasy peace, but tensions were still evident when Kumaratunga proposed a joint deal with the rebels to distribute tsunami relief funds in devastated northern coastal areas.

The plan met with determined protests from the Sinhala Buddhist majority in the south. On June 13, police used tear gas and batons to break up a protest by Buddhist monks, according to a BBC report. Several other major demonstrations were held in the capital, Colombo.

Undeterred, Kumaratunga signed the “Joint Mechanism” agreement with LTTE leaders on June 24.

Many church leaders welcomed the move, seeing it as an opportunity to revisit the stalled peace process.

Buddhist leaders, however, were incensed. Monks from the JHU party announced a “fast unto death” unless the government revoked the agreement. In solidarity with the protestors, the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Party resigned from the ruling coalition, leaving Kumaratunga with a minority government.

The JVP had sided with the JHU in pushing forward anti-conversion legislation.

Days after the “Joint Mechanism” was signed, Minister of Buddhist Affairs Ratnasiri Wickremanayake proposed the Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, which appeared in the Government Gazette.

Once the Gazette publishes a bill, it can be placed on the Parliamentary Order Paper and presented for voting.

Wickremanayake’s Act is an alternative to the Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion proposed by the JHU. The JHU bill was “Gazetted ” in May and referred to a sub-committee for discussion and possible amendments. (See Compass Direct, “Second Anti-Conversion Law Presented to Sri Lankan Parliament,” April 20.)

A previous draft of the Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom called for imprisonment of up to five years and a maximum fine of 100,000 rupees ($998) for anyone found guilty of unethical conversions.

Key representatives of the Sri Lankan Christian community (who requested anonymity) said the renewed emphasis on anti-conversion legislation could be an attempt to appease the Buddhist community in the wake of the LTTE agreement.

U.N.: No Evidence of Forced Conversions

Asma Jahangir, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Freedom of Religion or Belief, paid a brief visit to Sri Lanka in May to meet with representatives from Buddhist, Hindu and Christian communities. Anti-conversion laws were a key issue on her agenda.

At a press conference in Colombo on May 12, Jahangir said she had seen no solid evidence of forced conversions. “In my opinion, the provisions of both draft bills could result in the persecution of religious minorities rather than protection and promotion of religious tolerance,” she told reporters.

The Joint Committee of Buddhist Organizations in Sri Lanka immediately wrote a letter of protest to the United Nations, claiming it had provided ample evidence of forced conversions in its meeting with Jahangir on May 3. The letter, published in the Asian Tribune on June 6, stated, “We regret very much that Madam Jahangir has exhibited apparent bias towards forces operating against the interests of Buddhists and Hindus who constitute over 80 percent of the country’s population.”

The letter concluded, “We fear that if the introduction of legislation is delayed and those responsible for the attacks on Buddhist places of worship are not identified, the tolerant Buddhist masses may run out of patience and adopt extra-legal methods to protect their cultural heritage, and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion ...”

Meanwhile, attacks on Christian communities have continued since Jahangir’s visit. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has recorded several violent attacks on churches, including arson attempts, in recent weeks. (See sidebar.)


Attacks on churches, as recorded by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka and other sources, during May and June.

May 15

The pastor of an Assembly of God (AOG) church in Kesbewa, Colombo district, learned that a protest was planned during Sunday services on May 15. Police provided security while 100 church members met in the shell of their church hall, which was previously set on fire by a Buddhist mob in September 2003. During the service, a large crowd of around 500 people, including 100 monks, arrived and began shouting Buddhist chants. They entered the garden, put up Buddhist flags and verbally abused the pastor and congregation. After two and a half hours, the police asked the pastor and church members to leave in order to defuse the situation. The mob dispersed but demanded that the church be closed down permanently. The mob warned that another two churches in the area would be targeted the following week.

May 15

Six Buddhist monks with a mob of 150 people attacked an AOG church at Milepost 28, Polonnaruwa, during Sunday morning services. The monks accused the pastor of defaming Buddhism and offering people money to convert. He was asked to close down the church and told that a refusal could lead to “bloodshed and death.”

May 15

A mob threatened members of an independent church in Halpita, Polgasowita, Colombo district, demanding that the church close down. The church lodged a police complaint. On May 27, the police served summons on the pastor of the church to appear at the Kesbewa magistrate’s court on May 30 on charges of breaching the peace. (The police had filed the case against the church.)

May 19

A group of pastors met with police to discuss threats made against the AOG church at Milepost 28, Polonnaruwa. The police instructed the pastors to stop all Christian activities and refrain from building any churches in the town, since it was a “Buddhist area.” The pastors were threatened with arrest for breaching the peace if they continued to hold Christian services in the area.

May 22

A Methodist church in Batticaloa was burned to the ground. Aid workers say Buddhist militants entered the church, used as a storage site for clothing and other aid packages, and set fire to it. An adjoining building used as the pastor’s home was also destroyed.

May 29

A mob of more than 100 people attacked Kithu Sevana church in Ambanpola, Kurunegala district, during a prayer meeting. Ten church members who had gathered for prayer were threatened, and the visiting pastoral worker was told not to return to the village.

May 30

Police asked the pastor of a Foursquare Gospel Church in Polonnaruwa to attend a discussion with Buddhist monks and other community leaders at the local police station. The community leaders asked the pastor to explain the ministry of his church. They then said that they did not want to resort to violence, and that the pastor was welcome to stay if he agreed not to evangelize or build a church in the village.

May 30

The pastor of the independent church in Halpita, Polgasowita, attended a court hearing where he was charged with breaching the peace. The magistrate ruled that church members and Buddhist neighbors should both maintain peace.

June 5

An AOG church in Ambalangoda purchased a new property on June 4 after its previous building was destroyed in the December 2004 tsunami. On the night of June 5, rocks, stones and bottles filled with sand were thrown at the building, damaging windows.

June 6

The same church was attacked at 10 a.m. by a mob of 100 men armed with iron rods, shovels, swords and other weapons. The mob returned at noon and remained seated on the boundary wall, shouting threats. At around 3 p.m. the pastor arrived; he and two other church members were severely beaten and required hospital treatment. The mob also damaged the boundary wall and the van in which the pastor was traveling. The pastor’s wallet, identity cards and mobile phone were also stolen.

June 15

The AOG church in Kesbewa attended the last of a series of highly-charged hearings in the magistrate’s court. The magistrate issued an order dismissing the case, finding all charges made against the church to be false.