Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.


Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”


Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News


More than 500 senior evangelical leaders gathering in Pattaya, Thailand from October 25-30, 2008, have wrapped up their General Assembly, after five days of intensive discussion to plan the way forward in world evangelization, reports Michael Ireland, chief correspondent, ASSIST News Service.

On Wednesday, delegates agreed upon six major resolutions setting out an evangelical response to religious liberty, HIV and Aids, poverty, peacemaking, creation care and the global financial crisis, according to a media release obtained by ANS.

“The worldwide financial turmoil is, at its root, evidence of what happens when too many are captivated by greed and put their faith in, and entrust their security and future aspirations to, a system animated by the maximization of wealth. Many legitimately feel betrayed,” read the resolution on the global financial crisis.

“While we hope that the painful consequences of the turmoil will be mitigated, our concern is that its impact will continue to permeate into more regions and economies of the world. We recognize that this economic crisis will have the most painful impact on the poor, who are the most vulnerable.

“We reaffirm our faith in God and acknowledge that He is in control. We repent when we have placed our trust in money, institutions and persons, rather than God. Our security is not found in the things of this world.”

The resolution called on Christians to care for the poor during the crisis and live simply and generously.

“The Body of Christ, His Church, is living with HIV,” stated the resolution on HIV, a major focus area for the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA). “With brokenness we admit that as Evangelical Christians we have allowed stigmatization and discrimination to characterize our relationships with people living with HIV. We repent of these sinful attitudes and commit to ensuring that they are changed.”

In the preamble to the resolution on the Millennium Development Goals, evangelical leaders stated, “In coping with the financial crisis of 2008, governments and international institutions have shown how quickly and effectively they can move to mobilize massive resources in the face of serious threats to our global, common economic well being.

“Yet one child dying of preventable causes every three seconds and 2.7 billion people barely sustained on an income of less than two dollars per day has yet to evoke a similar level of urgent response.

“We believe this to be an affront to God, a shame to governments and civil society, and a massive challenge to the witness and mission of the followers of Christ.”

World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) international director Dr Geoff Tunnicliffe told delegates that they faced additional challenges to fulfilling the Great Commission from radical secularism, postmodernism, declining Christianity at the same time as growing interest in spirituality, trafficking and migration.

He insisted, however, that great challenges also brought great opportunities for evangelical engagement.

“We see this tremendous growth and this seismic shift in the church around the world and we are excited to what God is doing as he raises up women and men around the world in so many different places,” he said.

“As we think about the global reality of the world in which we live, [there are] immense challenges but also immense opportunities.”

Dr Tunnicliffe also said that the WEA would remain committed to integral mission “or holistic transformation, a proclamation and demonstration of the Gospel”.

“It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are done alongside of each other but rather in integral mission proclamation has social consequences. We call people to love and repentance in all areas of life,” he said.

He reaffirmed the WEA’s commitment to world evangelization.

“If anyone tells you that we’ve gone soft on world evangelization you can tell them that we are totally committed to world evangelization because it is only Jesus Christ that changes people’s lives,” he said.

A highlight of the week was an address from the Rev Joel Edwards, who was commissioned during the assembly as the new director of Christian anti-poverty movement Micah Challenge.

In his address, the former head of the UK Evangelical Alliance told delegates that the power to rehabilitate the word ‘evangelical’ lay in their hands.

“Whatever people think of evangelical Christians, if people are going to think differently about evangelicals the only people who can actually change their minds are evangelicals,” he said.

“We must reinvent, rehabilitate and re-inhabit what evangelical means as good news. We must present Christ credibly to our culture and we should seek to be active citizens working for long-term spiritual and social change.

“Words can change their meaning. If 420 million evangelicals in over 130 nations across the world really wanted it to happen, evangelical could mean good news.”

In another key address, the head of the Evangelical Fellowship of India, the Rev Richard Howell said that an identity anchored in Christ and a universal God was an evangelical non-negotiable in an age of pluralism.

“We have but one agenda: obedience to the Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ,” said Dr Howell. “We are evangelical Christians for the sake of God.”

“Our identity has to be related back to God. Unless we do that, we will never know who we are. Our identity comes from God and God alone.”

“The Christian belief in the oneness of God implies God’s universality, and the universality implies transcendence with respect to any given culture.

“Christians can never be first of all Asians, Africans, Europeans, Americans, Australians and then Christians.”

The assembly also heard from the Chair of the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE), Douglas Birdsall.

The WEA is collaborating with the LCWE in its major Cape Town 2010 meeting, which will bring together 4,000 evangelicals to assess the next steps in realizing the movement’s vision of ‘the whole church taking the whole gospel to the whole world’.

“You might ask is there a need for an international congress that deals with world evangelization,” Birdsall told the assembly. “I would say that throughout history, such a gathering is only necessary when the future of the life of the church is threatened by some type of challenge – either internal challenge or external pressure.”

The assembly also saw the launch of the WEA Leadership Institute, a brand new initiative to see the leaders of the WEA’s 128 national alliances trained to serve and proclaim Christ within some challenging contexts.

“Leading an Evangelical Alliance is not easy,” commented Dr Tunnicliffe. “That’s why we want to provide them with the relevant training and resources.”

Also commissioned during the week was the new leader of the WEA’s Religious Liberty Commission, Sri Lankan national Godfrey Yogarajah.

Dr Tunnicliffe rounded up the assembly with a call to evangelicals to keep in step with God’s work on earth.

“It is my prayer that we in our community will be women and men who live with divine purpose within our lives, that we will be good leaders envisioned by God to make a difference in the world,” he said.

“The most important thing that you can do with your [life] is to integrate it into the never ending story of God’s kingdom. God’s already at work in the world. He’s doing things. We just need to align with what He is doing.”

World Evangelical Alliance is made up of 128 national evangelical alliances located in 7 regions and 104 associate member organizations. The vision of WEA is to extend the Kingdom of God by making disciples of all nations and by Christ-centered transformation within society. WEA exists to foster Christian unity, to provide an identity, voice and platform for the 420 million evangelical Christians worldwide.

Report from the Christian Telegraph