Colombo (AsiaNews) – A draft anti-conversion bill has been before Sri Lanka’s parliament since 6 January and could become law before the end of next month. National media have tended to give the matter scant coverage but many in the population wonder about its risks and merit. The bill is purportedly designed to stop people from being forced to convert from one religion to another under duress or when enticed by money or economic advantages.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a party founded in 2004 and led by Buddhist monks, is one of the bill’s main backers. But Catholic leader and senior Member of Parliament Joseph Michael Perera has called for two debates on the proposal because it affects all religions, various organisations and political parties, and could harm relations among the island nation’s various confessions.
Buddhists are 68 per cent of the population of Sri Lanka; Hindus are about 11 per cent; Muslims 9 per cent; Christians about 6.8 per cent.
Most Sri Lankan Buddhists welcomed the anti-conversion bill. A young university student told AsiaNews that “this law is as necessary as the government’s destruction of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers rebels). We must rid ourselves of all those who convert (others), priests and pastors who destroy our Buddhist-Sinhalese culture. Christians are living in this land peacefully because of the great Buddhism. . . . Otherwise they would have washed out long ago.”
At least one Buddhist businessman agrees with the student. For him “there is no place for many religions, many ethnic groups or many cultures. This is the only purely Buddhist and Sinhalese country in the world.”
The bill is above all controversial because it does not clearly define what constitutes forced conversion. In fact charity work and help to the poor could be seen as a form of coercion to be punished with up to seven years in prison or fines of up to 500,000 rupees (US$ 4,400).
In 2004 the JHU had tabled a similar law, provoking criticism, especially in Christian communities. But in response to a challenge filed by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court ruled that two points in this early draft bill were unconstitutional because they were in violation of Article 10 of the Sri Lankan constitution which says that “Every 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.”
At that time the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka (CBCSL) had sent a letter to lawmakers, warning them of the “terrible dangers” the bill could entail if it was adopted.
Working with the National Council of Christian Churches and some Hindu and Muslim leaders, the CBCS opposed the bill, warning however some Christian fundamentalist groups against taking advantage of the debate to harm inter-faith relations in the country.
Even now that anti-conversion legislation is back on the front burner, Protestant communities were quick off the mark in their opposition—on Monday Evangelical Churches organised a collective prayer at Colombo’s Vihara Maha Devi Park.
Catholic Church leaders appear to be showing more restraint in the matter. For their part, the faithful are waiting for the bishops to speak up.
One Catholic when asked about the issue said: “We are waiting for our bishops and fathers to take the initiative and take steps for the good of our faith. We need a society that is united. We need Church leaders to come together as one voice and articulate our opposition to this terrible law.”