Sri Lankan Cabinet Approves Bill Outlawing Conversions

( [email protected] ) Jun 28, 2004 11:56 AM EDT

The Sri Lankan Cabinet has granted initial approval of a draft bill designed to prevent religious conversions, according to a June 24 report by Compass Direct news service.

The Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, approved June 18, will now be revised by the government's legal draftsmen before being enacted as law, Compass Direct reported. Open Doors' Jerry Dykstra says 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."

Christians are in the minority in Sri Lanka, representing eight-percent of the population. Dykstra explains 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. 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 campaign to introduce anti-conversion laws began soon after the Buddha Sasana Commission in 2002 and intensified in 2003, with 91 attacks on Christians and churches last year.

Until the campaign began, most Buddhists in Sri Lanka lived peacefully with adherents of other faiths. But in 2002, senior Buddhist clergy became disturbed by the decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas. The 2002 commission was an attempt to address this issue. One source confirmed to Compass that, during the commission's tenure, the clergy laid out a clear strategy to suppress the growth of Christianity and stir up popular opposition to the Christian faith.

In September 2003, more than 1,500 Buddhist monks gathered for an anti-conversion rally in Colombo. They accused Christians of offering financial enticements to the poor to encourage them to convert -- a claim which Christians vehemently denied.

Even as the cabinet gave initial approval for the new legislation, a fresh attack was underway. On June 18, several Buddhist monks drove through the village of Wadduwa in a van, calling residents to a protest march the following day.

On June 19, about 50 monks led a crowd of 150 people to the local Christian Fellowship Church and staged a protest rally. Police officers arrived at the scene but were unable to control the mob. The crowd broke into the church, threw chairs at the altar, pulled down Scripture banners and verbally threatened the daughters of the pastor, who was absent at the time.

On Sunday, June 20, police officers assigned to protect the church arrived before the morning service and managed to prevent a small group of protestors from breaking into the building, Compass Direct recounted. But a larger crowd of 200 people soon arrived, waving banners and placards. Bricks, stones and petrol bombs were thrown at the church, damaging the roof and windows. Police officers used tear gas in an effort to dispel the crowd; in return, they were pelted with stones.

The pastor was finally forced to announce that he would suspend all meetings at the church.

The disturbance in Wadduwa was the latest in a series of 50 incidents throughout Sri Lanka in the first six months of 2004.

Sri Lankan Christians have asked the international community to support them in protest against the new legislation.