Sri Lanka Supreme Court to Convey Its Determination on Anti-Conversion Bill

After being introduced to Parliament on July 21, the 'Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religions Bill,' is expected receive a ruling on August 12
( [email protected] ) Aug 10, 2004 06:45 PM EDT

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court said Tuesday that it would convey its determination on the constitutionality of an anti-conversion bill to the Indonesian President and the Speaker on Wednesday. Although the “Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Religions Bill” is designed to ban religious conversions obtained by force or fraud, Christians have been opposed to the bill, suggesting that opponents would use the bill to target their work.

Twenty-one petitions challenging the constitutionality of the bill and 13 petitions in support of the bill were taken up for inquiry Tuesday before a three-member bench of the Supreme Court comprised of Justices T.B. Weerasuriya, Nimal Dissanayake and Raja Fernando.

According to sources, counsels appearing for the petitioners in support of the bill and against the bill submitted their written submissions to the court for perusal.

Omalpe Sobitha Thera, parliamentarian for the Jathika Hela Urumaya (a party of Buddhist monks) presented the bill in parliament. Counsels for petitioners in support of the bill argued that the bill is not contrary to the Constitution.

Meanwhile, counsels appearing for petitioners against the bill argued that he bill is contrary to the fundamental tenets of the constitution, legal sources said.

The bill, proposed by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), 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 ($1,400 USD). 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 ($4,800 USD) fine. If charged and found guilty, both the convert and the person responsible for his or her conversion would suffer penalties.

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.

Last week, in a public statement, Sri Lanka President, Chandrika Kumaratunge, said that law could not prevent unethical conversions. She appealed to the Buddhist monks to get involved in supporting the poor, which could stop unethical conversions, as they believe that Christians are converting the poor through monetary allurements.

Meanwhile, the ministry of Buddhist Affairs is expected to introduce an even stronger bill that states “No person shall convert or attempt to convert or aid or abet acts of conversion of another to a different religion.” Similar to the “Prohibition of Forcible Conversions of Relgions Bill,” the “Act of Safeguarding Religious Freedom” bill provides heavy fines and prison sentences for violators.

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 notable decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas. They see the entry of Buddhist monks into Parliament in April as a sign of growing intolerance of religious minorities.

Currently, Christians constitute eight percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 19.9 million people.

Sources say the court is expected to release its ruling on August 12.