Sri Lankan Christians Launch Legal Challenge to Anti-Conversion Bill

( [email protected] ) Jul 23, 2004 05:27 PM EDT

Christians in Sri Lanka are preparing a legal challenge to a new anti-conversion bill tabled in the Sri Lankan Parliament today, according to UK-based Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

Presented by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party of Buddhist monks, the bill has been anticipated for some months and was expected to be tabled in June, however Parliament was suspended days before the scheduled date, resuming again on July 20. The JHU tabled the bill on July 21.

The bill, known as the “Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religions Bill”, if enacted would require individuals who convert from one religion to another to inform the local authorities within a prescribed period. Those who fail to notify the authorities can be imprisoned for up to five years or fined up to 150,000 Rupees ($1,460 USD). In addition, the law would also state that: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person aid or abet any such conversions.” Anyone who breaches this law would be subject to up to five years imprisonment and a fine of up to 150,000 Rupees. If a minor, a woman, a physically or mentally disabled person, a prisoner, a student, a refugee or a hospital patient is converted by “fraudulent means”, the penalty is seven years imprisonment and 500,000 Rupees ($4,900 USD) fine.

In addition to the JHU-proposed bill, the Minister of Buddhist Affairs is expected to table a Government bill, with Cabinet support, which goes even further. The so-called “Act of Safeguarding Religious Freedom” is not limited to ‘forced’ conversions. The draft states: “No person shall convert or attempt to convert or aid or abet acts of conversion of another to a different religion”. Converting to another religion, under this law, would be punishable by up to seven years in prison, and heavy fines.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) and other Christian groups in Sri Lanka have been campaigning against these proposed laws, and will launch a legal challenge this week in the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, CSW reports that the NCEASL is also seeking ways to pursue reconciliation with the Buddhist community.

"We urge the Sri Lankan Parliament not to support these two bills, which compromise international standards of human rights and religious liberty," stated Tina Lambert, Advocacy Director of Christian Solidarity Worldwide. “This is not simply a Christian issue. We want to work with people of other faiths, and of none, who may share a concern for religious liberty for all. If passed, these laws will be deeply damaging to Sri Lanka’s reputation.”

CSW expressed its concern over the bill, stating that "'Forcible’ and ‘unethical’ conversions, if they take place, are of course wrong. However, impartial prosecutions in the midst of inter-religious tensions would be difficult to gurantee." In essence CSW fears that the law would adversely affect the activities of many genuine religious groups, including those providing social and humanitarian services.

Evidence of the divisive nature of the legislation can be found in neighboring India where five states have passed similar laws. As feared, false charges of forced conversions have been brought to the courts.

CSW worked with Members of Parliament (MPs) to draft Early Day Motion (EDM) 210 on religious freedom in Sri Lanka and is urging supporters to ask their MPs to sign. Part of EDM 210 reads: “That this House recognizes that the people of Sri Lanka have a long-standing reputation for tolerance and respect; notes however that the plight of one of the religious minorities in Sri Lanka, Christians, is getting worse; is also aware that anti-conversion legislation, modeled on the controversial and divisive anti-conversion law in Tamil Nadu, India, is about to be presented to the Sri Lankan Parliament; and calls upon the Sri Lankan Government to give full protection to religious minorities, to bring to justice those found to have participated in attacks upon religious minorities, and to promote genuine and lasting inter-faith harmony in Sri Lanka.”

According to CSW, the anti-conversion laws are being introduced after a period of rising anti-Christian violence. Over 45 churches have been attacked since January, and during the past year more than 140 churches have been forced to close, due to attacks, intimidation and threats.