Christian Churches in Sri Lanka are launching an awareness campaign concerning two anti-conversion bills, either of which, if enacted, will "seriously erode the freedom of thought, conscience and religion guaranteed in the country's constitution, diminish religious rights and negatively impact socio-pastoral work," according to sources.
The campaign follows a joint statement released June 29 in Colombo by the National Christian Council and the Catholic Bishop's Conference of Sri Lanka on the issue. In the joint statement, the official representatives of Churches to the National Christian Council and all the active Catholic bishops in the country denounced "unethical conversions," a main reason for the bill.
The Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religion Bill, proposed by a member of a party of Buddhist monks, was published at the end of May in a Sri Lankan gazette. Afterwards, the government drafted a similar bill that was approved by the Cabinet.
According to sources, the bills would punish people convicted of using force, allurement or fraudulent means to convert a person from one religion to another with imprisonment and fines. Christians have voiced concern that the tough measures may be misused in the Buddhist-majority country.
The Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religion Bill, among other clauses, specifies that anyone who changes his or her religion, as well as the facilitator in the conversion, should inform a designated local government official. Failure to do this would be punishable by a prison term of up to five years and a fine of up to 150,000 rupees (about 500 US Dollars).
In protest of the bills, heads of the Anglican, Baptist, Dutch Reformed, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, the Church of South India and the Salvation Army, along with the archbishop and 11 bishops serving the 11 Catholic Church territories in Sri Lanka threfore signed the June 29 statement.
The full text of the joint statement follows:
Joint statement of the Catholic Bishops and the National Christian Council on the proposed legislation to ban conversions
The attention of the Catholic Bishops' Conference and the National Christian Council in Sri Lanka has been drawn to the bill titled, "Prohibition of forcible conversion of Religion" published in the Gazette on 28th May 2004 and to the fact that the Cabinet has approved another suggested draft to ban conversions. We do recognize that for some time now there has been growing anxiety and agitation over "unethical conversions". This could well be part of the rationale behind these bills. We do not condone any unethical practices or any form of compulsions and do categorically denounce them.
We reiterate our call to work together as leaders of all religions in our country to address this situation. We are always ready and willing to participate in any process that would ease religious tensions, identify practices that injure the religious susceptibility of any community and work towards greater religious harmony in our country. However, whilst acknowledging the problem and offering to participate in meaningful ways to redress these issues, we strongly believe that enacting legislation will not solve the problem. On the contrary, it will create problems of its own. Apart from the serious violation of personal freedoms, it will pave the way for the oppression of minority religions in the country. In these circumstances, we have little option but to collaborate in finding other democratic ways to deal with our inter-religious tensions.
Having carefully studied these drafts 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. We are also of the opinion that these drafts contravene the fundamental human rights of our people enshrined in our Constitution as well as accepted prevailing international conventions and norms. Consequently, we have grave concerns that such possible legislation, given today's political climate, will destroy the freedom of choice and the character of pluralism, both essential pillars of a modern democratic society. The repercussions of this on our international image will be disastrous.
We are therefore compelled to caution our political leaders and inform all Sri Lankans that this trend could well be the beginning of an invasion of the right to personal choice. Our already oppressed people simply cannot be burdened with more restrictions of this nature.
We also take this opportunity to clarify our position on religious and personal freedom. All the four religions in our country have cherished and exercised that right to propagate their religion throughout the world. The fact that missionaries are being sent out from Sri Lanka to propagate religion in other countries demonstrates our appreciation and our exercise of that fundamental right in other countries.
No fetters should be placed in the path of the exercise of that freedom by legislative or other means. All religions teach their adherents to perform works of charity and all such works of charity cannot be permitted to be criminalized on the assertion that they serve as allurements. It is both a basic feature and duty of all religions to teach and propagate their faith, for in doing so they spread the highest human values.
For these reasons we disapprove the moves to enact legislation to prohibit or restrict conversions and call upon all people of goodwill to stand up for the free exercise of religious freedom and freedom of conscience for all.