Controversy over Freedom of Religion Bill: Buddhists to meet UN envoy

by Janaka Perera,, May 3, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Representatives of Buddhist organizations are scheduled to meet visiting UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom Asma Jahangir today (May 3) in the wake of mounting Christian evangelist pressure against the proposed Freedom of Religion Bill that is aimed at preventing unethical conversions.

Last month the World Evangelical Association met Jahangir at Geneva and alleged that the Bill is an attempt to persecute Christians. These proselytizers are depending heavily on the West to prevent the Bill from becoming law ? if possible with a threat to cut development aid.

Janet Epp Buckingham, Director of Law and Public Policy of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada was reported last month (April) as warning the Sri Lanka Government that it should ?know that the world is watching their treatment of religious minorities."

Buddhist lawyers however have vowed to fight unethical conversions tooth and nail although facing an uphill task in a country ? where despite its Buddhist-Hindu majority - almost all lawyers associations are Christian dominated. (Four decades ago, most of the top brass in the island?s armed forces and police were Christians and Roman Catholics)

Addressing a meeting of Buddhists at the Dharma Vijaya Foundation, Colombo on Saturday, the Venerable Kirama Wimalajothi, Director of the Buddhist Cultural Centre, Nedimala, Dehiwala, emphasized, ?The Bill should be definitely brought to Parliament ? whether or not it is passed is a different matter since each MP is permitted to vote according to his conscience. The outcome will nevertheless prove how many of the so-called Buddhist parliamentarians support the Bill. The Minister of Buddha Sasana who is entrusted with presenting the Bill is now apparently retreating under pressure.?

The Ven. Wimalajothi further said that no other country allows foreigners being allowed to spend their money on religious conversions.

?I was 12 years in Malaysia and three years in Singapore. I?ve also stayed in other countries. Nowhere have I seen such fraudulent conversions tolerated. Sri Lanka may perhaps be the only country that turns a blind eye to this sort of thing. Governments think that we Buddhists are cowards.?

At the same meeting, participants expressed concern over a possible conspiracy to prevent the Cabinet-approved Bill from being presented in Parliament. They challenged the government to gazette the Bill so that Buddhist public can effectively respond to the arguments that the evangelists are raising.

Presently only a few Buddhist lawyers had seen the document. Serious concern was expressed over the English language press ? especially the Lake House Group - trying to suppress news on anti-conversion issues. Cited as an example was the April 26 Daily News report which did not carry a single word on the Malwatte Mahanayake?s urgent appeal to the government to pass anti-conversion laws without delay.

Buddhist activists are now collecting videos, audiotapes, printed material and other evidence to prove their case on unethical conversions. According to Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission Member Dr. Anula Wijesundera, since the introduction of the free market economy to Sri Lanka 25 years ago, steady stream of Christian evangelical organizations have infiltrated the island.

Attorney Prasantha Lal De Alwis, Legal Advisor to the Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission?s Special Committee on the Freedom of Religion Bill told the Asian Tribune that they were fighting against overwhelming odds to ensure that the Bill passed in Parliament. De Alwis and other Buddhist lawyers complain that those who oppose the Bill have turned a blind eye to the issue of a community?s religious and cultural base. They are convinced that the obsession with the principle of equality of status of religions (while discounting the overwhelming contribution made by the tenets and traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism to the structuring of Sri Lanka?s civilization) will face stiff opposition from Sri Lanka?s Buddhist majority.

The stubborn refusal of Western religious rights groups to see the conversion issue in its proper Asian context has seriously complicated the matter. Buddhism in Sri Lanka as in Thailand, Myanmar, Bhutan, Laos and Tibet is inextricably linked to the country?s cultural and national heritage (as much as the Greek Orthodox Church identifies strongly with the ethnic and cultural histories of Central and Eastern Europe).

Instead, Buddhists allege that the West wants to impose on Sri Lanka the Protestant concept of a gathered congregation of individual believers, a notion that has shaped the development of provisions protecting religious freedom under international law. But the problem is that this law was developed to protect individuals and religious groups from the State persecution and not to protect one religious community from being proselytized by another, according to Buddhist lawyers who are actively campaigning for the enactment of anti-conversion legislation.

Sri Lanka however is not alone in prohibiting and preventing unethical conversions. The Indian Supreme Court decreed that the freedom to propagate does not include the freedom to convert. The Greek Constitution prohibits proselytizing and this decree is reinforced by laws that make proselytizing a punishable offence in order to protect members of their Christian Eastern Orthodox Church.