Joint Committee of Buddhist Organizations says Inter Religious Council a farce

By Janaka Perera, Asian Tribune, April 26, 2009

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- The Joint Committee of Buddhist Organizations has welcomed the common desire of Christian Churches for an integrated Sri Lankan Nation but notes that some of their activities in enriching national life are highly questionable.

The JCBO has stated this in response to a letter by Christian Leaders to all Parliamentarians on the proposed Anti-Conversion Bill which has been the target of criticism by almost all Christian organizations here.

Twenty four Christian Leaders of mainline Churches are signatories to the letter. They include 18 Catholic Bishops and retired Bishops, Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Baptist Sangamaya, Presbyterian Church and Salvation Army.

They allege that the bill will (a) erode the democratic right of religious freedom, namely the right to choose a religion according to one’s conscience (b) prevent Christians: and indeed the adherents of all religions in spite of their innocence, to stand with the affected and serve one another for fear of legal consequences in spite of their innocence and (c) the interpretation and implementation of certain provisions of the bill are likely to provoke more inter-religious suspicion, tensions and conflict than will resolve them.

The Christian leader’s letter to MPs argues that all religions practiced in Sri Lanka have had their origins outside the island and that over the centuries the Christian Church and Christians have grown to become an intrinsic and integral part of the social fabric of our country.

Following is the full text of the JCBO statement prepared by the committee’s Co-Conveners Gamini Perera and Chitra Wijesekera in response to the complaints and allegations made by Christian Leaders:

On the Background

It is regretful that the Christian Church is attempting to bring Buddhism, which has molded the life, culture and traditions of this peace loving country for well over 2550 years, on par with the Christian Church that had emanated from a colonial background of repression and has existed for a few centuries in Sri Lanka. The barbaric and inhuman manner in which the spread of different brands of Christianity was undertaken is well documented and needs no elaboration here. Despite this, the tolerant Buddhist rulers and the people at the time allowed other believers to merge with the social fabric of the country and even protected the then Catholic community who were being hunted by the Dutch Protestants to the extent of permitting the use of temple premises to conduct their religious activities, and gave asylum to the Muslims who were being attacked by the British. Accordingly all religions not only had a right as claimed but enjoyed all the privileges that the majority Buddhists magnanimously extended to them. There is little doubt that these acts have contributed in great measure to the status they now enjoy.

We were pleased to read that the common aspiration of the Christian leaders has been an integrated nation. However on the basis of past events we respectfully wish to state with responsibility that some of their major activities in enriching national life have been directed at consolidating and expanding Christianity using means which we consider are questionable. Their humanitarian services have been commendable but they have been marred by subtle, long term strategies to attract persons of other religions to their faith by means which an officious bystander will not accept as moral. Particularly in the field of education where they established the infrastructure to impart a good education in their schools, there is evidence that the dearth of good schools has been turned to undue advantage by the respective Churches by alluring non Christian parents with a thirst to impart a good education to their children, to accept conditions which are immoral, for admission of their children to most Christian schools. This has been compounded by the fact that many schools they run on their policies receive sizeable public funds for operating the schools.

The well known long time role and involvement of certain Catholic Bishops with the LTTE, which have hardly drawn any adverse comment or action from the Church, do not justify their claim of co-operation in nation building. On the contrary the activities of some senior Christian clergy have been directed towards attempts to break up the Nation State. Even to this date statements issued by certain Christian leaders are unbalanced in favor of the LTTE.

An unseen agenda which is knitted into many of the activities by the Christian Churches fits in to their overall objectives of Christianizing the Buddhist world as evident from several pronouncements made by Christian leaders. These objectives are very clear from the late Pope's statement that was made when he visited India, namely, “the task ahead of the Church is the evangelizing of Asia during this millennium”. In 1940 The Rt. Rev. Lakdasa De Mel, on his elevation as Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Church, said: “The task of the Church in Ceylon will not be finished till the remaining ninety percent of the population, who are not Christian, are converted.”

We are very pleased that the Christian leaders have admitted to their past errors and we fervently hope that they will strive to understand the foundations of our ancient heritage and culture and refrain from infringing on the religious beliefs of others through policies and practices for alluring them or their children to change their religious beliefs.

On the Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion
Again we respectfully disagree with the Christian leaders that there is any valid reason for their stated concerns about the Bill. The original Bill was placed before the Supreme Court and after hearing two full days of comprehensive arguments by both sides, the Court determined that the main contents of the Bill were acceptable except for a few amendments necessary to qualify it to be passed by ordinary majority in Parliament, which have been attended to. It thus seems naďve to fear that the Bill will erode the democratic right to choose or change to a religion according to one’s conscience. A clear and intelligent understanding of the Bill will prove that there are no provisions in it that will either prevent acting according to one’s conscience or make one who does so an offender. Clearly, offenders under the Bill are those who convert or attempt to convert by force, allurement or fraud, or aid and abet in such conversions. We do not accept Sri Lankan society as presently constituted as a pluralistic society, but this notwithstanding, the Bill in no way undermines or tampers with the right to one’s conscience.

There are many areas of social life were there is some risk of legal consequences in spite of being innocent and the proposed legislation is also no exception. This particular Bill however has special protections to ensure that frivolous actions are not brought before a Court.

Inter religious tension and suspicion are already present and on the increase, due to more recent acts by other religious activists against Buddhists. The evangelical churches, better known as the fundamentalist Christian groups, have been largely responsible. In a letter written by Bishop Malcolm Ranjith, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in May 2000 to the Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs he says of these fundamentalists that, “The good relations that exist between the Buddhists and Christian Churches could easily be disturbed because of the unethical manner in which these non traditional Evangelical churches go about their conversions. They have their own ways of reaching out to non Christians to win them over – ways that have been resented by the Buddhist clergy ….” These fundamentalists have no respect for morals and they boldly oppose even Buddhist monks who attempt to defend the freedom of religion and conscience of Buddhists whom they target for converting unethically, often subjecting these monks to threats and violence. Reliable reports from the North where all Christian Churches have had a privileged and active presence throughout, indicate that an alarmingly large number of helpless Hindus have been pushed to change their religion, a blow to religious harmony.

The view of Christian leaders is that the Bill will create more conflict than resolve them, resulting in the country having to take another unaffordable conflict centred on religious tension. The stark reality however is that over 80 percent of the population are legitimately aggrieved due to the absence of a law to make unethical conversions an offence or to give much needed guidance to the Police to deal with complaints, while less than 7 percent of the population with no valid reasons are opposed to legislation. In this environment the logical conclusion that one may reasonably draw is that the chances of a conflict centred round religion is far remote if there is legislation in place to address the legitimate concerns of the large proportion of the aggrieved parties.

On the alternative proposal for an Inter Religious Council

Unofficial Inter Religious Councils have been existent for a number of years without any transparency in their activities, and these Councils have had no impact on the problems faced by Buddhists and Hindus and the tensions created by unethical conversions, long known to all religious leaders. We fail to understand what incentive the various Christian sects that will sit on an Inter Religious Council will have, to solve this problem when their common ultimate goal of Christianizing this entire region is very much alive. The ball is firmly in the court of the Christian churches, and they do not need the participation of others to address the problem they have created and to take a joint pledge with the participation and co-operation of all the mainline and evangelical Churches, to stop all unethical conversion activities so as to make the legislation a dead letter in course of time.

It has become the fashion to lay by a problem by pushing it to a Committee when a solution affects some interested party. We see the proposal for an Inter Religious Council as a red herring drawn across the process that has been activated to have legislation against unethical conversion approved by Parliament. Therefore we respectfully urge all Honorable Members of Parliament to desist from deviating from the course taken on the Bill so far and to have it placed before Parliament and debated to its conclusion.