Sri Lanka to Vote on Anti-Conversion Bill

Friday, March 25, 2005

Members of Parliament likely to pass legislation in open voting.

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN, March 24, 2005 (Compass) -- The Sri Lankan government will cast a deciding vote on anti-conversion legislation in April, despite sharp criticism of the “Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom.”

Section 2 of the legislation’s draft, approved in principle by the Sri Lankan cabinet in June 2004, stipulates that no person should “attempt to convert or aid or abet acts of conversion of a person to a different religion.” In practical terms, the Act makes conversion from one religion to another illegal under any circumstances.

Christians say the Act contravenes several international human rights agreements. For example, Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human 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.”

Two separate anti-conversion bills were proposed last year, one by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist political party; and one by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the Minister of Buddhist Affairs.

The JHU’s “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion” was ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in August 2004. The Court pointed out that Section 3 and 4(b) of the bill violated Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Wickremanayake’s “Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom” is more stringent than the JHU bill. According to an article in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror on March 18, “The main objective of the bill is to ... prohibit conversion to other religions.”

“A person found guilty of contravening these provisions will be liable for a prison sentence of not over five years or a fine not exceeding 100,000 rupees [$1,005],” the Daily Mirror reported.

Additionally, “If the offense is committed against a minor, the accused will be liable for a prison sentence not exceeding seven years or a fine not exceeding 500,000 rupees [$5,027].”

Members of Parliament (MPs) will cast a deciding vote on Wickremanayake’s bill in April. Cabinet Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle acknowledged the controversial nature of the bill and said MPs would be free to vote “according to their own conscience,” rather than along party lines.

However, a Methodist minister from Sri Lanka told Compass, “Parliament will only vote against this bill if it is held under a secret ballot. Nobody will raise their hands in public to vote against it.

“A secret ballot is the only chance to defeat this bill. Then some MPs may vote against it, knowing that if Sri Lanka adopts this kind of law, some countries and foreign organizations might withdraw their financial aid and moral support.”

Sri Lankan MPs are no doubt aware of the U.S. government’s recent decision to deny an entry visa to Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, India. Modi is suspected of involvement in religious riots in Gujarat in 2002 which left hundreds dead or injured. Critics also say his policies have ensured the continued harassment of religious minorities in the state.

The move to introduce anti-conversion laws, modeled after similar laws in India, began in 2002. Since then, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has recorded more than 170 incidents of discrimination or violence against Christians.

In 2002, senior Buddhist clergy called for a special Buddha Sasana Commission to address the decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas. 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. This strategy included a move to ban Buddhists from converting to other faiths.

Christians had hoped that their efforts to assist Buddhist victims of the December 2004 tsunami would reduce hostility towards the Christian faith. However, these hopes were dashed by the recent announcement that anti-conversion legislation is still on the agenda.

Should the Act become law, it will almost certainly affect tsunami relief efforts carried out by religious groups. Under the new law, acts of charity and goodwill may be viewed as attempts at conversion, leaving relief organizations open to stiff government penalties and possible imprisonment.