RELIGIOUS FREEDOM: by Dr John WhitehallNews Weekly
Christianity under threat in Sri Lanka
, July 2, 2005
Sri Lankan parliamentarians are advocating divisive and anti-Christian leglislation that could restrict foreign aid - and this at a time when their country is facing so many challenges, reports Dr John Whitehall.Two essentially anti-Christian bills are being considered by members of the Sri Lankan parliament - as if that country were not sufficiently divided on ethnic and religious lines, and as if Christians were not contributing to the development of the country and relief from the Boxing Day tsunami.
Christian and Hindu groups are concerned that the bills, said to be intended to preserve religious liberty, will have the opposite effect.
The bills are claimed to be designed to prevent conversions from one religion to another by means of "force, fraud or allurement", but Christian leaders are concerned that the vague definition of those terms will enable broad restrictions to be imposed on the spiritual and practical expression of their faith.Attacks
These leaders are concerned the bills are directed against the Christian church because of its growth and because conversions between other religions are uncommon. Their sensitivity is heightened by the physical attacks that have been occurring with increasing frequency against their people and property.
The first "Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion" was championed by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party whose nine parliamentary members are all Buddhist monks. It was gazetted on May 28, 2004, and is currently undergoing its second reading.
The second bill, known as the "Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom", was drafted by the Minister for Buddhism and presented to parliament in June 2004. It is currently being reviewed by a committee.
The bills have been associated with as yet unsuccessful initiatives of the JHU to elevate the position of Buddhism in the Constitution from its "foremost place" to that of official State religion. 75 per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 15 per cent Tamil, 8 per cent Christian and 7 per cent Moslem.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) has been at the forefront of opposition to the bills. Comprised of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Salvation Army, Assemblies of God, Foursquare Gospel Church, Calvary Church, the Fellowship of Free Churches and about 80 other churches and Christian organisations, the NCEASL has called international attention to the bills and to the persecution of the churches it has chronicled since 1987. The Catholic archdiocese of Colombo has also expressed concern about the bills and the attacks on churches.
Concerns about the JHU bill are focussed on section 2, which states: "No person shall convert or attempt to convert any person from one religion to another by force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means." It shall be an offence to aid or abet such conversions punishable by imprisonment up to five years and a fine of up to 150,000 Sri Lanka rupees.
For the attempt to convert a "minor, a woman, an official, a prisoner, inmates of rehabilitation centres and detention centres, persons with physical or mental infirmities, employees of an organisation, members of the armed forces or police, students, patients in hospitals or nursing homes, refugees and any other category determined by the Minister", a person found guilty could be imprisoned for up to seven years and fined up to Rs 500,000.
The NCEASL is concerned about the interpretation of the key words "allurement, force and fraudulence". The bill defines allurement as the "offer of any gift or temptation in the form of (1) any gift in cash or kind, (2) grant of any material benefit, in cash or kind, or (3) grant of employment or grant of promotion in employment".
The NCEASL fears the definition, in practice, might mean that "any religious body, an individual, church, or organisation engaging in social action, by providing food, shelter, medical care, education, etc, including the running of orphanages, schools, homes for the aged, vocational training programs, providing food or medical care", may be accused of attempting to convert a person through "allurement".
It fears the function of Christian schools could, similarly, be defined as allurement.
A discussion paper published by the archdiocese of Colombo, and entitled "No to Anti-Conversion Bill", concludes that the bill will mean: "Christians who indulge in charitable works after this law, will be exposed to being charged by persons hostile to them for whatever reason, even to pay off personal grudges ..."
It will mean Christian organisations will be forced to confine their charitable work to Christians, thus discriminating against (if not abandoning) people of other religions.
The bill may have "detrimental effects on the economic well-being of the poor and disabled ... who are now being (cared for) in institutions by Christians. It may also cause religiously-run facilities that provide necessary food and health services to the poor to shut down".
According to the Catholic paper, the laws will "create a new criminal offence based on the mental condition" of the person extending charity. The paper questions how a court could possibly tell if a Christian was "giving money or other benefit to someone in need" in order to convert or, merely, as a good deed.
The bill defines "force" as including "threat of religious displeasure or condemnation of any religion or religious faith".
The NCEASL says, "The Bible teaches about sin, forgiveness, and deliverance from sin; that God is displeased with sinful habits, practices and lifestyles. Therefore, any Christian sharing the basic tenets of his faith may be accused of invoking 'religious displeasure' in an attempt to convert another to Christianity."Misrepresentation
The bill defines "fraudulence" as including misrepresentation or any other fraudulent act, but the NCEASL fears the subjective quality of such a judgement. It asks, "Can a court of law determine that a Christian who claims the Biblical truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God is committing fraud through misrepresentation?"
Reminiscent of the attempt of communist régimes to control religion is the provision in the bill that "Any person who changes his religion is required to inform the Divisional Secretary of this fact". The archdiocese declares this provision to violate the right of privacy guaranteed in international covenants signed by Sri Lanka which state that "no-one can be compelled to reveal his thoughts or adherence to a religion or belief".
The bill also declares, "Any person who performs or takes part, either directly or indirectly, in an initiation ceremony to convert another is required to inform the Divisional Secretary of such act" and failure to report can invoke imprisonment of up to five years or a fine of up to Rs 150,000. (A hard-working bus driver might earn Rs 7,000 each month.)
The NCEASL complains that "baptism may be construed as an initiation ceremony which may cast a duty upon all clergy performing baptisms and those who take part, e.g., godparents, to report to the Divisional Secretary".
The Archdiocese says, "Under this law, Christians will feel it unsafe to participate in any religious ceremony where non-Christians are present. Even those who arrange the flowers at a religious ceremony where non-Christians are present would be exposed to a criminal charge."
Also reminiscent of people's committees established in some communist countries is the provision in the bill permitting any "interested person" to institute proceedings in a magistrate's court. As the "interests" of that person are undefined, the possibilities for harassment are broad.
Concerns about the minister's bill are focussed on sections 2 and 8. Section 2 renders it illegal to convert or attempt to convert. Section 8 defines conversion as "direct or indirect action or behaviour designed to cause a person to embrace a religion or religious practice". The NCSEAL wonders if "living an exemplary life, witnessing the teachings of Jesus Christ" may be considered "behaviour designed to cause a person to embrace a religion". It is concerned that "public manifestation of religious events such as Church feasts and celebrations may similarly be identified as forms of behaviour designed to cause a person to embrace a religion".
While the definitions of allurement, force and fraud are similar in the JHU bill and the minister's bill, the punishments are heavier in the latter and include imprisonment and
fines, confiscation of funds, property and resources.
If the offence is committed in a school by a teacher, or in a prison, detention camp, refugee camp, hostel, hospital, nursing home, medical centre, children's home, home for the disabled, place of employment or military establishment, the penalties can be greater.
If the offence is committed by a group of persons, every director, shareholder, officer and every employee of that organisation is considered guilty of the same offence.
In reaction to the JHU bill, 22 opposing petitions were filed in the Supreme Court by religious bodies, denominational leaders, individuals and civil organisations, including the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, the President of the Methodist Church, the President of the Dutch Reformed Church, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Chilaw, the Civil Rights Movement, Solidarity for Religious Freedom, the All-Ceylon Hindu Congress, the NCEASL and others.
The petitions were heard by a three-judge bench which reported to the parliament on August 17, 2004, that certain of the sections contravened the intention of the constitution to preserve religious liberty and would, therefore, need the approval of a two-thirds majority in parliament and a public referendum before the bill could become law.
The court, however, declared that if the sections were modified, the bill could be enacted by a simple majority in parliament. The reaction of the JHU to the Court's decision is not yet published. The bill remains unchanged and is undergoing a second reading. The minister's bill is undergoing committee review.Protest rally
Resistance to the bills is increasing within Sri Lanka and, on May 7, 2005, Solidarity for Religious Freedom (consisting of members of different denominations) held a special protest rally in Chilaw, chaired by its Catholic Bishop, the Rt Rev Frank Marcus, and attended by the Anglican Bishop of Kurunegala, other denominational leaders and the Minister of Christian Affairs.
Bishop Marcus warned that some of the proposed laws "will violate the rights of all citizens, including Buddhists" and stressed that "the threat to religious freedom is not against any one group of Christians, but against the entire Christian community".
The list of churches attacked by mobs in Sri Lanka confirms the bishop's warning because it includes some of the oldest denominations as well as the new.
The archdiocese of Colombo reports that "over a hundred churches have been attacked" and the NCEASL says the attacks have increased from 10-15 per year to 80-90 and include four to five deaths, assaults, harassments and the burning and demolition of churches.Harrassment
Despite hopes that the suffering from the tsunami might have a unifying effect, the attacks have continued in 2005 with the harassment of a Methodist congregation and the burning of two Catholic buildings. Sadly, over the years saffron-robed men have been reported to have been prominent in mobs attacking churches, staining Buddhism's popular image of benign tolerance.
An initial statement from Asma Jahangir, a Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion of the UN Commission on Human Rights, supports NCEASL and Catholic concerns.
Delivered on May 12, after two weeks' investigation, it confirmed "reports of violent acts of religious intolerance such as the destruction or burning of places of worship ... and, in most cases the perpetrators have not been brought to justice ... despite the identification of the perpetrators".
Of the draft bills, Ms Jahangir said, "The provisions of both draft bills could result in the persecution of religious minorities rather than the protection and promotion of religious tolerance."
In Sri Lanka, ethnic and political intolerance has destroyed far more lives and property than the Boxing Day tsunami, which killed 30,000 people and wrecked a narrow strip around the edge of the country.
Since the late 1970s, three or four times that number have died in the civil war between the Singhalese and the Tamils, and in the Marxist-Leninist insurrection. The whole country has been impoverished, swathes of agricultural land remain untilled and villages are being reabsorbed by the jungle.Flimsy ceasefire
Whereas the communist insurrection has lost its fire, ethnic peace between the Buddhist Singhalese and the, largely Hindu, Tamils rests on a flimsy ceasefire agreement. In the meantime, the borders between the two areas bristle with barbed wire and rifle barrels pointed across expanses of mine-fields. National newspapers report continued executions and acts of violence behind the lines.
It is hard to imagine why Sri Lankan parliamentarians would divert energy into potentially divisive bills that could restrict foreign aid when their country is facing so many challenges.