Sri Lanka Supreme Court to Determine Constitutionality of Anti-Conversion Bill

Bill that would punish converts and the persons responsible for their conversion to be reviewed August 6
( [email protected] ) Aug 04, 2004 04:14 PM EDT

The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka will determine the constitutionality of an anti-conversion bill that has brought great concern to the local Christian minority since its proposal in May of this year. The hearing for the “Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion” Bill is slated for August 6.

The bill, proposed by a party of Buddhist monks (the Jathika Hela Urumaya), states 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. If charged and found guilty, both the convert and the person responsible for his or her conversion would suffer penalties.

Many Christians feel the bill is an attempt by the Buddhist party to suppress the growth of Christianity and stir up popular opposition to the Christian faith following the evident decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas.

So far, according to the Sri Lanka-based Daily News, twenty-one petitioners have sought to determine the constitutionality of the bill, including K. Neelakandan of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, Dutch Reformed Church President Charles N. Jansz, Bishop of Chilaw Frank Marcus Fernando, Bishop of Kurunegala Rev. Kumara Illangasinghe, Liberal Party National Committee member Anura Samarajeewa, and the General Secretary of All Ceylon Hindu Congress.

Earlier this year, 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 issued a joint statement, expressing their dissatisfaction over the anti-conversion bill.

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

After the bill received approval by the country's cabinet and was considered by Parliament late last month petitioners against the bill have sought a court determination that the Bill is not consistent with the Constitution and needs to be passed by a two-thirds majority of the Parliament members.

Meanwhile 20 intervenient-petitioners including six Buddhist monks of the Jathika Hela Urumaya and the President of the Center for Buddhist Action seek to intervene on the basis that if the provisions in the Bill would be held to be inconsistent with the provisions of the Constitution, their right to the Freedom of thought and the Religion would be affected.

They state that non-governmental organizations funded by foreign organizations were engaged in the forcible conversions in the country for decades. They claim that such conversions violated their right to the Freedom of Thought and the Religion guaranteed under Article 10 and 14 of the Constitution.

They stated that the "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion" Bill was in accordance with the Constitution and the provisions of the International Human Rights Convention to which Sri Lanka was a signatory.

However, Christians have contested that 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. The ICCPR stipulates that no one should be subject to coercion, which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion of his own choice. Anti-conversion legislation itself could be seen as a form of coercion.

The Supreme Court Bench that will determine the constitutionality of the bill will be composed of Justices T.B. Weerasuriya, Nimal Dissanayake and Raja Fernando.