Buddhist extremists in Sri Lanka have drafted an amendment to the country’s constitution, changing the status of Buddhism from the ‘foremost’ religion to the State religion. While the amendment contains an article providing freedom for the practice of other religions, this is qualified by the requirement that they are practiced “in peace and harmony with Buddha Sasana [Buddhist teachings]”.
Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW), which recently visited Sri Lanka, released a report on Thursday after obtaining a draft copy of the so-called 18th Amendment, which has not yet been tabled. According to the agency, one clause in the constitutional amendment would also prohibit Buddhists from converting to another religion. Article 9.5 of the proposed amendment states explicitly: “To convert Buddhists into other forms of worship or to spread other forms of worship among the Buddhists is prohibited.”
During the ten-day visit, CSW met representatives of all major Christian groups, including the Catholic Bishops Conference, the National Christian Council (NCC) and the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), constitutional lawyers, media and a senior Government official. CSW also met Buddhist and Hindu groups, including the President of the Hindu Council, the Director of the Dharma Vijaya Foundation, and the founder of the Sihala Urumaya party, which became the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party of Buddhist monks with nine seats in Parliament. As well as working on the constitutional amendment, the JHU is proposing the introduction of an anti-conversion law.
As part of its fact-finding, the team also visited a church in Kesbewa, a suburb of Colombo, which had been completely burned down in September 2003. Evidence of anti-Christian propaganda was also presented to CSW. Inflammatory posters are displayed on street corners with slogans such as “Buddhists, Sinhalese, stand up and protect Buddhism for future generations”, and leaflets distributed with headlines such as “Buddhists wake up! Protect Buddhism from the Christian invaders!” Newspaper articles with distorted reports and provocative headlines are also regularly published, and one reporter told CSW that the media was generally not very balanced in its coverage of the issues. Some newspapers, she added, have promoted the Buddhist viewpoint and justified attacks on Christians.
Godfrey Yogarajah, General Secretary of the NCEASL, told CSW that the church in Sri Lanka had “made mistakes” in the past and sometimes behaved in ways that were “insensitive to the culture”. However, much of the evidence of allegations of “unethical” conversions is purely anecdotal, and often exaggerated. In its report, CSW reflected the concerns that Buddhists and Hindus have, urged Christians to adopt methods of mission that are more sensitive and respectful to the local culture and encourages Christian efforts to find non-legislative measures to address these concerns.
However, CSW said it firmly opposes anti-conversion laws and the proposed constitutional amendment as they directly contravene Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. CSW also strongly condemns acts of violence against Christians.
CSW’s Chief Executive, Mervyn Thomas said: “CSW is sensitive to the concerns of Buddhists and Hindus in Sri Lanka, and we stand for the freedom of all people to practise the religion of their choice. We are pleased to have been able to hear first-hand the concerns of all the major faith groups and to be able to reflect those views in our report.”
“In the interests of religious liberty, however, we strongly oppose any move to restrict the freedom of Sri Lankans to change their religion, or to share their beliefs with others. We also condemn anti-Christian violence and hate propaganda, and urge Buddhists and Hindus to enter into dialogue with Christians to ensure religious freedom, respect and harmony for all.”
The NCEASL has recorded 146 acts of violence against Christian churches in the past two years. At least 66 incidents have been reported this year alone. Over 140 churches have been forced to close down due to attack, intimidation and harassment. The violence has mainly affected evangelical churches, but mainline Protestants and Roman Catholics have also been targeted.
On September 23, it was reported in the Daily Mirror, a Sri Lankan newspaper, that the JHU had accepted the Supreme Court’s ruling that two clauses of their proposed legislation were unconstitutional. The JHU announced it would redraft the bill and expects to table the new draft within six months.