04/11/2006, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Anti-conversion bill to become law soon

Members of committee tasked with reviewing bill are appointed. If they approve, the bill will only require third and final reading. Christians are concerned and warn: If the vote is not secret, it will be hard for anyone to vote against the bill.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Despite pledges by the new government to uphold religious freedom in Sri Lanka, the Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion, better known as the anti-conversion bill, continues its journey through parliament.

On April 5, the speaker of Sri Lanka's parliament, W.J.M. Lokubandara, appointed a 19-member legislative standing committee that will vet the draft law before it goes to the full house for a final vote.

Catholics and other religious minorities are concerned by that and have called on President Mahinda Rajapakse, who was elected last November, to respect the promises he made to the nation.

The Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion was tabled in July 2004 by a party made up of Buddhist monks, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU). It requires anyone converting to inform local authorities within a given time and states that "no one shall convert or try to convert people from one religion to another by fraudulent means".

Breaking the law would result in a prison term of up to five years or a fine that could reach US$ 1,500. The sentence can be extended to seven years and US$ 5,000 if converts belong to the so-called "Schedule 1" category, i.e. people most at risk: women, children, prison inmates, the mentally or physically challenged, refugees, military or police.

The draft law was tentatively approved in May 2005 after amendments were introduced following a Supreme Court ruling in August 2004 that struck down some provisions on the grounds that they were incompatible with Art. 10 of the constitution, which guarantees that "[e]very person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice". Now the newly-appointed committee will examine the proposed amendments and adopt the final version.

In light of the ongoing process, Christian community leaders have reminded the new President of the November 25, 2005, pledge he made in an official speech in which he said: "We shall adopt measures to provide all citizens religious freedom and freedom of conscience, including the right to embrace any religion or faith".

For some Christian analysts in Colombo, there are great chances that the bill will become law "despite the fact that it violates the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights".

"Parliament could stop it but only if the vote is secret; otherwise no one will have the courage to stand against it," the experts warn. (SDS)

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