UN Special Rapporteur accused of anti-Buddhist bias

by Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, June 6, 2005

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Joint Committee of Buddhist Organizations, Sri Lanka, has accused United Nation?s Special Rapporteur Asma Jehangir of falsifying and distorting facts in a press release on the issue of unethical conversions in the island.

In a letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, JCBO Coordinator Gamini Perera has expressed his "astonishment" over her denial that there was no concrete proof of anyone being forced or coerced into giving up his/her ancestral religion.

Following is the full text the JCBO's letter to the UNHCHR:

Office of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights
1211 Geneva 10

Madam Asma Jehangir's Press release on her visit to Sri Lanka

The statement released by Madam Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion, at the press conference held on the12th May 2005 on the eve of her departure from Sri Lanka, comes as no surprise to us. On the basis of some of the views she expressed at our meeting with her on the 3rd May 2005, a day after she was supposed to have arrived in Sri Lanka and even before she had met a representative cross section of her interlocutors, we got the impression that she had come with certain preconceived ideas.

It was for this reason that we were constrained to place on record, by a letter to her dated 10 May 2005, the official position of the Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations and the Hindu Organisations represented at the said meeting, on the discussions and issues we raised on the 3rd May.

We regret very much that Madam Jehangir has exhibited apparent bias towards forces operating against the interests of Buddhists and Hindus who constitute over 80% of the country's population.

Destruction of places of worship.

Madam Jehangir refers to reports of violence and destruction of places of worship, which she considers to be mostly churches, but refrains from mentioning the hundreds of Buddhist shrines and invaluable archeological monuments destroyed over the past few decades including the attacks on the Sacred Bo Tree and the Temple of the Tooth which are venerated by millions of Buddhists the world over, by organized anti-Buddhist elements.

Improper conversions.

Madam Jehangir in her statement states, "During my visit I have received numerous allegations of organized groups involving in improper or unethical practices to induce individuals to change their religion. While it was not claimed that anyone was coerced to or forced to change his or her religion in a manner that is clearly incompatible with the right to freedom of religion or belief, many of these allegations have remained vague as to the identity or circumstances of the so-called victims. Despite several requests and efforts in this direction, I have been unable to hear direct testimonies of such cases. Nevertheless, second hand accounts by credible sources indicate that conversions through improper means have indeed occurred and certainly raise a concern". Regrettably this statement is factually incorrect. It is false to say that "it was not claimed that anyone was coerced to or forced to change his or her religion".

When we met Madam Jehangir we provided instances of forced or coerced conversions that had taken place. In the 16 page document plus the annexure prepared by us, giving proof of forced and unethical conversions, specific instances were cited in addition to the oral representations made. We wish to recall the report cited by us, where an attempt was made to convert a 17 year old girl in a remote village. In fact when this report was being read to her, she interposed saying she is already in possession of that report. Madam Jehangir did not make any indication that she had any doubt about the authenticity of the said report or any of its contents. On the contrary she appeared to demonstrate a lack of interest in this story which vividly described the manner in which the freedom of religion of the girl was seriously infringed.

We also drew her attention to the statement made by the Rev. Dr Devsritha Mendis, Coadjutor Bishop of Chilaw in the daily Island newspaper of 3 May 2005, a copy of which was attached to the abovementioned document, where he admits the prevalence of forced conversions when he states, "Forced conversions are carried out by fundamentalist groups." Hence our astonishment over Madam Jehangir's assertion that there was no claim that anyone was coerced or forced to change his religion in this country. We consider this a deliberate attempt to distort the facts that were placed before her.

Christian Eckert report on un-ethical conversion:

It is also extremely unfortunate that Madam Jehangir had observed that "many of these allegations have remained vague as to the identity or circumstances of the so-called victims", despite a number of reported incidents of conversions being brought to her attention. In addition, she was provided a rare opportunity to listen to the first hand experience of Mr. Christian Eckert, a German journalist who, while engaging in Tsunami relief work, had stumbled on the activities of some faith based organizations, and found good evidence of these organizations attempting to convert Buddhist victims in the Galle area, with offers of assistance or through threats to withdraw assistance if they did not follow their rituals. He had also observed that it was almost impossible to get persons who experienced such attempts, to come forward and make a statement either before a recorder or a camera as they feared that they would be victimized by these powerful groups or even the Police if they did so. He mentioned the case of a Buddhist monk he met, who had been threatened and warned by the local Police to desist from alerting the people about the "Religious Tsunami" (reference being to large scale attempts by faith based donors to convert), that was hitting them.

Although Madam Jehangir says that she made "several requests and efforts" to obtain testimony, we must place on record that no such request was made to us. Whilst she laments that she has "not been able to hear direct testimonies" of conversions by coercion or force, her information on violent acts of religious intolerance and the burning of churches, is also not based on direct testimony, but according to her is based on a number of reports she has received. However her ready acceptance of the reports only, to pass strictures relating to attacks on churches is totally inconsistent with her seeking direct testimony regarding the cases of conversion reported to her on her visit.

Hurt to religious feelings. Strangely Madam Jehangir has received only ?a few reports of deliberate "hurt" to religious feelings". These incidents of hurt to religious feelings were directed primarily at the Buddhist community in this country. Her sources of information on these offences committed against the Buddhists appear to be inadequate.

Tsunami relief.

Again it would be optimistic to expect confirmation of allegations without physically sitting for a few days disguised as a refugee in a camp that is exposed to the machinations of these faith based groups. We deeply appreciate her call to NGOs and religious organizations to comply with UN Resolution 46/182, of not espousing religious opinions while disbursing aid. Our investigations reveal that while only a "few" may not be complying with the said resolution, a very large proportion of the money spent is from the "few" who have ignored the guidelines. It would have been useful if authentic information on the number of faith based organizations active on Tsunami relief in the devastated areas has been obtained.

So far government has only paid lip service to this serious problem and we hope that Madam Jehangir will, as a matter of extreme urgency, make comprehensive recommendations that would effectively prevent acts of infringement on the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of these helpless victims and ensure the protection of their dignity and the development of their personality which are their rights under UN human rights covenants.

Reading Madam Jehangir's comments on Tsunami aid, we cannot ignore her statement that ?These (referring to non compliance with the abovementioned UN Resolution) are regrettable practices but do not constitute a criminal offence or a clear violation of the right to freedom of religion, as long as such conversions are not carried out under force, pressure or other coercive methods". Here again, as in her comments under improper conversions, she is clearly laboring to establish that only force, pressure or coercive methods constitute a violation of ones right to freedom of religion etc. This basic misinterpretation or twist which regrettably Madam Jehangir attempts to subtly introduce and drill into those who will read her statement in order to prepare the stage for her final onslaught on the proposed legislation which she termed as "an atom bomb to kill an ant", runs counter to relevant norms set by the European Court as well as the respected Supreme Courts of India and Sri Lanka as to what acts constitute improper methods of religious conversion.

On the issue of what constitutes improper conversion practices, a direct, frank and honest expression of Madam Jehangir's expert interpretation of what specific methods of conversion are violative of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion granted under universal human rights covenants, and what are not, would have been better appreciated than her approach of beating about the bush, which portrays a sense of uncertainty and a lack of confidence to support her own interpretation.

The draft laws.

During our meeting with Madam Jehangir, we repeated over and over again that we firmly consider the essential provisions of the draft bills (except for certain provisions of an ancillary nature which were determined by the Supreme Court to be inconsistent with the Constitution and which can be emended without affecting the main objectives of the proposed laws), to be in conformity with our Constitution and with all UN human rights covenants. We even expressed the fact that we would not object to amending any provisions if they were shown to be inconsistent with the above documents and expressed our desire to know precisely the offending provisions in the bills. We did not receive any response to this viewpoint although from time to time, general concern with no reason adduced, was expressed about the provisions in the bills vis-a-vis human rights laws. We expected Madam Jehangir, being an expert who would have seen any flaws in the drafts at a glance, to illuminate us on this point, but there was a deafening silence on this issue.

We also discussed the view held by many opponents of the bills that the existing laws were adequate to deal with the problem. However we adequately demonstrated that this view was inaccurate in law as our Penal Code did not cover the acts of improper conversions and that such offences could not be dealt with under the said code. The procedure for bringing offenders to Court under the Penal Code is also not satisfactory for cases of improper conversions.

Madam Jehangir has praised our democratic traditions and our ability to resolve emerging religious tensions and sustain religious harmony under very difficult situations, but in the same breath she states that the draft bills "could result in the persecution of the religious minorities rather than the protection and promotion of religious tolerance". We consider these two views to be totally irreconcilable. With our long history of being saviors of religious minorities that have been persecuted by invaders from time to time, we are very confident that with a new law that is in conformity with human rights laws and will clearly define the limits to which a religion may legitimately be manifested, there will be greater understanding between religious communities and the promotion of religious harmony. In fact adequate protection has been built into the government draft to ensure that persons cannot be brought before a Court on frivolous charges. In any event the legality of the proposed laws and the purported adverse consequences of such a law are two separate issues though they may be related to some extent. In our view Madam Jehangir's duty primarily is to ascertain whether the bills violate the freedom of religion, thought or conscience guaranteed under the human rights laws. That the law will result in persecution of the minorities is mere speculation and has no rationale. On the contrary the absence of a law has clearly proved that the Buddhists and Hindus are being persecuted.

Certain Christian groups have suggested the setting up of inter religious committees but how could such a committee deal with hundreds of independent fundamentalist evangelical groups possessing no morals or ethics, scattered throughout the country with no base or leadership. In fact it is only the traditional churches that have understood the problem, that could attempt to influence and lead these fundamentalists on a correct path, but for reasons best known to them they have not so far done so. It is our view that all Christians in general are raising frivolous objections to the legislation using all the powers at their command to pressurize the government through threats, to desist from bringing a bill before Parliament, and in the process are buying valuable time to vigorously pursue their programme of unethical conversions.

We fear that if the introduction of legislation is delayed and those responsible for the attacks on Buddhist places of worship are not identified, the tolerant Buddhist masses may run out of patience and adopt extra legal methods to protect their cultural heritage and the freedom of thought, conscience and religion which the Buddhists too are entitled to. It is our view that anyone who likes to see justice being meted out to the Buddhists and Hindus and religious harmony maintained at an acceptable level, should refrain from opposing legislation that would make improper conversion an offence, provided that it is not inconsistent with human rights laws.

Finally we urge Madam Jehangir to give careful consideration to the frank views we have expressed, in drawing her conclusions and making her recommendations.

Thank You.

Yours truly

Gamini Perera
Coordinator for Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations