07/29/2005, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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Archbishop of Colombo tells government to respect religious freedom

Archbishop Gomis makes his appeal as two "dangerous" anti-conversion bills make their way through parliament. The recent attack against a local Catholic church was the work of outside fundamentalists who act without reason but to destroy. "The Catholic community is not afraid; fundamentalists are a minority".

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Mgr Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, chose AsiaNews to make an appeal to the Sri Lankan government and parliament in favour of the "fundamental right to religious freedom" in a country which has always been "an example of peaceful coexistence of people of different faiths" but in whose bosom an "irrational" extremism has grown.

For more than a year now, the prelate has been involved in the discussion surrounding two bills that are before parliament which, if passed, could justify discriminations not only against the country's religious minorities but also against it Buddhist majority.

Archbishop Gomis's appeal is being made at a time when Buddhist fundamentalist groups continue to carry out violent acts against the Catholic community out of fear for the "country's thousand-year-old harmony", threatened so they believe by Christian "proselytising".

For the Archbishop, it is important to keep in mind that, back in May, parliament adopted parts of the original "dangerous" Bill on the prohibition of forcible conversion proposed by the Buddhist Party Jathika Hela Urumaya.

In August of last year, the Supreme Court had declared two articles unconstitutional because they were contrary to Art. 10 of the constitution, which guarantees religious freedom and the freedom to choose one's own faith.

Now the bill must be vetted by a standing committee which will study any amendments before it goes through final reading and is voted by parliament. Five members of the committee are Catholic.

For Archbishop Gomis, the Act for the protection of religious freedom, a bill presented by Buddhist Affairs Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake is unfair and must be condemned. At this point in time, "it still has to go through second reading and it is still not known when that will happen".

Christian and human rights groups have already announced that they would challenge the proposed Act before the Supreme Court should it become law.

The country's Catholic Church is on the frontline in the campaign against both bills. And for this, the Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations released a statement a few days ago warning the Bishops' Conference that its "persistent objections without good cause" to the legislation can only encourage illegal actions of proselytising.

"We need not reply to the statement; the Supreme Court already has," the prelate said. "This legislation runs against our country's religious harmony".

Just two weeks ago, on July 17, a group of masked men attacked and torched a Catholic Church in Pulastigama, in Archbishop Gomis's old diocese of Anuradhapura, north-east of Colombo.

"I know well the local situation. Christians and Buddhists have always gotten along in a cordial manner. This attack was organised by outside extremist groups. I cannot explain why it happened. Extremism is extremism though; it is without reasons and is completely irrational," he said.

According to Fr Eric Fernando whose church was the one attacked, "those who perpetrated the deed had only one goal: destroy and spread hatred."

So far the police have not arrested anyone in connection with the attack. But the Catholic community is not afraid, Archbishop Gomis said, stressing that "fundamentalists are a minority without much public support".

Never the less, to raise awareness among the faithful about the threat to the community, in July the Archbishop called on the entire archdiocese to pray for religious freedom.

"The programme included an hour of Adoration each Friday at the parish level and in religious institutions, reciting the Rosary at home in the family and attending meetings during which the laws were explained," he said "Participation was massive."

Archbishop Gomis does admit though that there are groups that aggressively proselytise and in so doing provoke the Buddhist and Hindu communities.

"It is a problem that must be dealt with but not with these dangerous means," he said.

The Bishops' Conference, the National Christian Council and the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka have proposed setting up a national inter-faith forum which would examine cases of forced conversions and bring those responsible before the law. (MA)

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