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Catholic and Christian Leaders Protest Against Proposed Sri Lanka Anti-Conversion Bill

( [email protected] ) Jun 30, 2004 11:04 AM EDT

Issuing a joint statement, Catholic and Christian leaders in Sri Lanka expressed their dissatisfaction yesterday over the anti-conversion bill that will be presented by the Freedom Alliance government shortly in parliament.

“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,” the statement issued jointly by the Catholic Bishops and the National Christian Council said.

The minority government promised to introduce an anti-conversion law in parliament to satisfy extreme Buddhists elements in Sri Lanka. The Jathika Hela Urumaya and the JVP, a coalition partner of the minority government led by President Chandrika Kumaratunga, promised to introduce the controversial law during their election campaign in April this year. However, the election pledge has now brought on more social turmoil after Catholic and Christian leaders officially opposed the government’s move, a political expert told a Sri Lankan newspaper.

“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. Therefore, we see no reason why a fundamental right enjoyed by us in other countries should be denied in our own. We affirm our commitment to protecting the individual’s freedom to have or adopt any religion or belief of his or her free choice,” the statement said.

The Sri Lankan Cabinet granted initial approval of the draft bill designed to prevent religious conversions earlier last week.

Open Doors' Jerry Dykstra said the measure is problematic for outreach. "Basically, it's going to make the spread of Christianity harder to do in that country. Already, there's many handicaps to ministry in that country among evangelical Christians, including missionaries. It's just going to marginalize the right to embrace a religion of their choice."

Dykstra explained that, if the bill passes in Parliament, ministries are going to have to be very careful if they continue to work in and around Sri Lanka. He says prayer will play a big role. "I think we really have to uphold the missionaries there and the evangelical church. Unfortunately, even though we see growth in the Christian community there, there's also a lot of division."

The draft bill on prohibition of forcible conversion proposed by the JHU was released in late May. It advocated fines of up to $5,027 and a maximum of seven years in prison for anyone involved in illegal conversion, Compass Direct said. Both the convert and the person responsible for his or her conversion would suffer penalties if found guilty.

If the bill becomes law, Sri Lanka will break with several international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, Compass Direct reported.