Pakistani Woman Appeals Death Sentence for ‘Blasphemy’


District judge bows to pressure of local Muslims, handing down stunning sentence to Christian.

LAHORE, Pakistan, November 13 (CDN) — Attorneys for a Christian mother of five sentenced to death by hanging for allegedly speaking ill of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, have filed an appeal of the verdict, they said.

Bowing to pressure from Muslim extremists in Pakistan, according to the Christian woman’s husband and rights groups, a district court judge handed down the stunning sentence to Asia Noreen on Monday (Nov. 8). Additional District and Sessions Judge Naveed Ahmed Chaudhary of Nankana Sahib district delivered the verdict under Pakistan’s controversial “blasphemy” statute, the kind of law that a resolution before the United Nations condemning “defamation of religions” would make legitimate internationally.

Noreen is the first woman to be sentenced to death under Pakistan’s widely condemned law against defaming Islam.

Noreen’s lawyer, Chaudhry Tahir Shahzad, said that among other allegations, she was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet.

“How can we expect a Christian to affirm a Muslim belief?” Shahzad said. He added that he and lawyer Manzoor Qadir had filed an appeal against the district sessions court’s verdict in the Lahore High Court.

Asia (alternately spelled Aasya) Noreen has been languishing in isolation in jail since June of last year after she argued with fellow field workers in Ittanwali village who were trying to pressure her into renouncing Christianity. Her husband, Ashiq Masih, told Compass that the argument began after the wife of an Ittanwali elder sent her to fetch water in Nankana Sahib district, about 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Lahore in Punjab Province.

The Muslim women told Noreen that it was sacrilegious to drink water collected by a non-Muslim, he said.

“My wife only said, ‘Are we not all humans?’ when the Muslim women rebuked her for her faith,” Masih, a field laborer, told Compass by telephone. “This led to an altercation.”

Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS) General Secretary Katherine Sapna told Compass that the women told Muslim cleric Muhammad Salim about the incident, and he filed a case with police on the same day, June 14, 2009.

On June 19, 2009, Masih said, the Muslim women suddenly raised a commotion, accusing Noreen of defaming Muhammad.

“Several Muslim men working in the nearby fields reached the spot and forced their way into our house, where they tortured Asia and the children,” said Masih, who confirmed that his wife is 45 years old and that they have five children – four girls and a boy, the oldest daughter 20.

Police arrived and took his wife into custody, presumably for her own protection, he said.

“They saved Asia’s life, but then later a case was registered against her under Sections 295-B and C [blaspheming the Quran and Muhammad, respectively] at the Nankana police station on the complaint of Muhammad Salim, the local imam [prayer leader] of the village,” he said. “Asia has been convicted on false charges. We have never, ever insulted the prophet Muhammad or the Quran.”

Salim reportedly claimed that Noreen confessed to speaking derogatorily of Islam’s prophet and apologized. Under immense pressure from local Muslims, according to Masih, CLAAS and Sohail Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, local judge Chaudhary ruled out the possibility that Noreen was falsely accused. In spite of repeated efforts by the Muslim women to pressure her into renouncing her faith, the judge also reportedly ruled “there were no mitigating circumstances.”

Chaudhary also fined her 100,000 rupees (US$1,150), according to CLAAS.

Ataul Saman of the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) said that lower court verdicts in blasphemy cases are usually overturned by higher courts. He said lower court proceedings take place under intense pressure, with local Muslims gathering outside and chanting slogans to pressure judges. Saman added that NCJP research showed that up to 80 percent of blasphemy charges are filed against people to settle personal scores.

Rights groups have long criticized Pakistan’s blasphemy laws as too easily used to settle grudges or oppress religious minorities, such as the more than 4 million Christians that Operation World estimates out of Pakistan’s total population of 184.7 million. To date no one has been executed for blasphemy in Pakistan, as most are freed on appeal after suffering for years under appalling prison conditions. Vigilantes have killed at least 10 people accused of blasphemy, rights groups estimate.

Noreen was convicted under Section 295-C of the defamation statutes for alleged derogatory comments about Muhammad, which is punishable by death, though life imprisonment is also possible. Section 295-B makes willful desecration of the Quran or a use of its extract in a derogatory manner punishable with life imprisonment. Section 295-A of the defamation law prohibits injuring or defiling places of worship and “acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens.” It is punishable by life imprisonment, which in Pakistan is 25 years.

Between 1986 and August 2009, at least 974 people have been charged with defiling the Quran or insulting Muhammad, according to the NCJP. Those charged included 479 Muslims, 340 Ahmadis, 119 Christians, 14 Hindus and 10 from other religions.

Johnson of Sharing Life Ministry, which is active in prisons and has been following Noreen’s case from the onset, said he was impressed by her continued faith.

“A week before the verdict, I went to visit Asia in jail,” he said. “I asked her what she was expecting. She told me that Jesus would rescue her from this fake case.”

The verdict was shocking in that no one was expecting a death sentence for a woman, he said. Masih agreed.

“Asia was hoping that the judge would free her and she would come home to be with us, but this conviction has dashed our hopes for now,” Masih said.

He said that since the sentencing, authorities have not allowed him or other members of their family to visit his wife.

“We don’t know yet how she is, but we trust the Lord,” he said. “Asia is suffering for Jesus, and He will not forsake her.”

Report from Compass Direct News

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Pakistani Court Acquits Christian Woman of ‘Blasphemy’


Authorities previously pressured her into false confession.

GUJRANWALA, Pakistan, August 12 (CDN) — Yesterday a court here exonerated a Christian woman of “blasphemy” charges after authorities had pressured her into making a false confession, according to the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement (CLAAS).

Rubina Bibi arrived in Lahore yesterday after Additional District and Sessions Judge Mohammad Asghar Khan in Wazirabad district set her free in Gujranwala, Punjab, said CLAAS National Director Joseph Francis.

Residents of Alipur Chatta, Gujranwala district in Punjab Province accused her of blaspheming Muhammad on March 20. Police arrested her on March 21 under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s widely condemned “blasphemy” laws, accusing her of having spoken ill of Muhammad during a quarrel with a local resident. She was sent to Gujranwala district jail along with her 1.5-year-old son, Yashwa.

Punjab provincial legislator Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, Sargodha area head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said that on March 20 the mother of three had purchased some edible fats from a Muslim woman, Seema Bibi, but asked for a refund when she found they were impure.

Seema Bibi began threatening her and speaking derogatorily of Christ, Christians and Christianity, Chaudhary said. In her false confession on April 6, Rubina Bibi said under duress that she was not used to hearing such contempt about herself and her faith and responded by insulting Muhammad.

“Her statement of confession was under pressure, and we obtained her new statement in the presence of lawyers in which she said that she did no such thing,” Francis said.

After hearing evidence in two previous hearings, the judge ordered the investigating officer to appear in court yesterday. Bashir of CLAAS, which took up Rubina Bibi’s case on March 30, offered an extended argument from previous case law, and Khan acquitted her, Francis said.

“We are once again in need of your prayers for the safety of Rubina, her husband Amjad Masih and her three kids,” Francis said. “Though she is acquitted by the court of law, even then it will be very difficult for Rubina’s family to live at their home among the Muslim extremists – they will have to move to some safe place.”

Following the July 19 killing of two Christian men accused of blasphemy, the Rev. Rashid Emmanuel and his brother Sajid Emmanuel, outside a courthouse in Faisalabad, CLAAS has arranged high security for Rubina Bibi and her family, Francis said. She and her husband also have two daughters, 5-year-old Elena and 3-year-old Eliza.

Initially police in Alipur Chatta tried to keep rights groups from discovering the detention of Rubina Bibi, a Christian leader said. Alipur Chatta police denied that they had detained Rubina Bibi when Khalid Gill, Lahore regional coordinator of APMA, inquired about her, Gill told Compass.

Gill said a radical Muslim relative of the accuser, Sabir Munir Qadri, had turned the quarrel into a religious issue in which the Christian could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment with a large fine.

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have gained international notoriety for their misuse by Muslims to settle personal grudges. Police initially told Compass that the First Information Report was sealed and no further information would be released to any person or news outlet. Inspector Asif Nadeem, station house officer of Alipur Chatta police, declined to speak to Compass in spite of repeated efforts to contact him.

The case comes on the heels of the March 3 sentencing in Kasur of a Christian couple to 25 years in prison under Section 295-B of the blasphemy laws for defiling the Quran. Ruqqiya Bibi and her husband Munir Masih had been arrested by Mustafabad police in December 2008 for touching Islam’s sacred scripture without ritually washing.

In Karachi, a court on Feb. 25 sentenced another Christian, Qamar David, to 25 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) after he was convicted without basis for sending blasphemous text messages in May 2006. David was convicted under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statues for “injuring religious feelings of any community,” and also under Section 295-C for derogatory remarks against Muhammad.

His lawyer, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, told Compass that the conviction was without basis as all 16 witnesses at the trial said that not David but the owner of the cell phone through which they received the blasphemous messages was guilty.

Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A is life imprisonment, and for Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. David received the sentence of life in prison, which is 25 years in Pakistan. He had not been granted bail since his arrest in 2006.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Woman Jailed under Pakistan’s ‘Blasphemy’ Laws


Radical Muslim relative of accuser uses statute to exact revenge, Christian leader says.

GUJRANWALA, Pakistan, March 24 (CDN) — Police in Alipur have arrested a Christian woman on a baseless accusation of “blaspheming” the prophet of Islam and tried to keep rights groups from discovering the detention, a Christian leader said.

Alipur police in Punjab Province denied that they had detained Rubina Bibi when Khalid Gill, Lahore regional coordinator of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA) and organizer of the Christian Liberation Front, inquired about her detention after a Muslim woman accused her of blasphemy, Gill told Compass.

“The Muslim woman’s name was kept secret by the police and Muslim people, and we were not allowed to see the Christian woman,” Gill said. “The Alipur police said they had not arrested her yet, contrary to the fact that they had arrested and tortured her at Alipur police station.” 

A reliable police source told Compass on condition of anonymity that a First Information Report (No. 194/2010) dated March 20 identified Rubina Bibi of Alipur, wife of Amjad Masih, as accused of making a derogatory remark about the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The charge comes under Section 295-C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which have gained international notoriety for their misuse by Muslims to settle personal grudges.

The police source said Rubina Bibi had been transferred to Gujranwala Jail on judicial remand. Alipur is a town near Pakistan’s industrial hub of Gujranwala.

Police told Compass that the FIR was now sealed and no further information would be released to any person or news outlet.

Alipur police told Compass that Rubina Bibi was incarcerated at Gujranwala Jail, and they denied further comment. Inspector Asif Nadeem, Station House Officer of Alipur police, declined to speak to Compass in spite of repeated efforts to contact him.

APMA’s Gill said the case registered against Rubina Bibi was without basis, growing out of a quarrel with her Muslim accuser over a minor domestic dispute. Condemning the arrest, Gill said a radical Muslim relative of the accuser, Sabir Munir Qadri, had turned the quarrel into a religious issue in which the Christian could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment with a large fine.

“The Muslim woman’s relative and plaintiff, Sabir Munir Qadri, filed a case against the hapless Christian woman under Section 295-C of the blasphemy laws of the Pakistan Penal Code, using it like a weapon against the Christian woman,” Gill said.

He urged the Pakistani government to immediately rescind the blasphemy laws – 295-A for injuring religious feelings, 295-B for defiling the Quran and 295-C for blaspheming Muhammad – because they have so often been misused by fanatical Muslims against Christians “as a sword of death.”

The case comes on the heels of the March 3 sentencing in Kasur of a Christian couple to 25 years in prison under Section 295-B for defiling the Quran. Ruqqiya Bibi and her husband Munir Masih had been arrested by Mustafabad police in December 2008 for touching Islam’s sacred scripture without ritually washing.

Tahir Gul, a lawyer with the Centre for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, told Compass that the matter arose out of a quarrel between Muslim and Christian children and turned into a clash of their parents.

In Karachi, a court on Feb. 25 sentenced another Christian, Qamar David, to 25 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170) after he was convicted without basis for sending blasphemous text messages in May 2006. David was convicted under Section 295-A of the blasphemy statues for “injuring religious feelings of any community,” and also under Section 295-C for derogatory remarks against Muhammad.

His lawyer, Pervaiz Aslam Chaudhry, told Compass that the conviction was without basis as all 16 witnesses at the trial said that not David but the owner of the cell phone through which they received the blasphemous messages was guilty.

Maximum punishment for violation of Section 295-A is life imprisonment, and for Section 295-C the maximum punishment is death, though life imprisonment is also possible. David received the sentence of life in prison, which is 25 years in Pakistan. He had not been granted bail since his arrest in 2006.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Pakistani Christian Sentenced to Life under ‘Blasphemy’ Law


Young man convicted of ‘desecrating Quran’ by accusation of rival shopkeeper.

FAISALABAD, Pakistan, January 22 (CDN) — A young Christian shopkeeper was sentenced to a life term in prison and fined more than $1,000 last week following a dubious conviction of desecrating the Quran, according to Pakistan’s National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP).

Peter Jacob, general secretary of the NCJP, said 22-year-old Imran Masih of the Faisalabad suburb of Hajvairy was convicted of desecrating the Quran (Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code) and thereby outraging religious feelings (Section 295-A) by Additional District & Sessions Judge Raja Ghazanfar Ali Khan on Jan. 11. The conviction was based on the accusation of a rival shopkeeper who, as part of an Islamic extremist proselytizing group, allegedly used a mosque loudspeaker system to incite a mob that beat Masih and ransacked his shop.

Neighboring shopkeeper Hajji Liaquat Abdul Ghafoor accused Masih of tearing out pages of the Quran and burning them on July 1, 2009. Denying that he burned any pages of the Quran, Masih told investigators that the papers he burned were a heap of old merchandise records he had gathered while cleaning his store.

Masih’s family members said Ghafoor fabricated the blasphemy case against him because of a business dispute. Nearby shopkeepers, initially reluctant to talk out of fear of reprisals but eventually speaking on condition of anonymity, told Compass that they had seen the two men arguing over business a few days before the incident occurred.

The shopkeepers said that when Masih burned the papers, Ghafoor started shouting that he had desecrated the Quran and blasphemed Islam and its prophet, Muhammad. In the case against Masih, police later accused Ghafoor of misusing the loudspeaker system of a mosque to stir up the mob.

“Ghafoor started shouting that Masih had desecrated the Quran and made blasphemous remarks about Islam and prophet Muhammad,” said one of the shopkeepers. “Ghafoor spread misconceptions about Imran Masih, and a mob of angry Muslim men unaware of the facts attacked Masih and viciously beat him, looted his shop and later handed him over to police.”

The shopkeepers added that Ghafoor was a hard-line Muslim and part of an Islamic proselytizing group.

Section 295-B of Pakistan’s legal code, desecrating the Quran, is punishable by imprisonment for life. In accordance with Section 295-A (instigating religious hatred and outraging religious feelings), Masih was also sentenced to 10 years in prison and a fine of 100,000 rupees (US$1,170); if he is unable to pay the fine, he will be assessed an additional six months in jail.

A conviction for blaspheming Muhammad (Section 295-C) is punishable by death under Pakistani’s notorious blasphemy laws. Widely condemned by the international community as easily invoked to settle personal enmities, Pakistan’s blasphemy laws have come under review in recent months, but to no avail.

The laws are routinely invoked to harass members of minority communities. Additionally, while police cannot make arrests without a court-issued warrant for Section 295-A, they can arrest suspected blasphemers under sections 295-B and 295-C on the complaint of a single individual.

Masih is incarcerated at District Jail Faisalabad. Sources said he plans to appeal his sentence to the Lahore High Court.

“No pages of the Quran were burned or desecrated,” said one member of Masih’s family, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It was just a lame excuse to implicate him in a fabricated case of blasphemy.”

Tahir Naveed Chaudhary, a Christian member of Punjab’s legislative assembly and Sargodha zone head of the All Pakistan Minorities Alliance (APMA), said Masih’s case was just one in a long list of incidents in which blasphemy laws have been used to settle personal grudges. He said that APMA would provide legal assistance to Masih.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Prisoners Freed in Acteal, Mexico Case Yet to Return Home


 

Christians bear no grudges, fear no threats from accusers.

TUXTLA GUTIERREZ, Mexico, October 12 (CDN) — Alonso Lopez Entzin, a Tzotzil-speaking Christian in Chiapas state, Mexico, spent 11 years and eight months in prison for a crime he did not commit. Accused of participating in the tragic “Acteal massacre” in December 1997 in which 45 persons died near San Cristobal de las Casas, he and more than 80 of his neighbors were summarily arrested and charged with the murders.On Aug. 12, the Federal Supreme Court of Mexico ordered that Lopez Entzin and 19 other indigenous men accused in the Acteal killings – 18 are Christian, including Lopez Entzin – be freed from El Amate Penal facility in Chiapas. Their release came as a surprise to him and his fellow prisoners, as well as to thousands of people in Mexico and around the world advocating their release.

Of the 18 Christians released, only five were Christians when they were arrested; the rest came to trust in Christ while in prison. At least 27 innocent men who were Christians at the time of their arrest remain in prison, according to advocacy organizations.

“I thank God that I have been granted freedom,” Lopez Entzin told Compass. “We are no longer imprisoned thanks to the power of God. There is no other person that has this kind of power, only God.”

The court is reviewing the cases of another 31 men convicted in connection with the massacre. Six more defendants will be granted new trials.

“Right now we see the first fruits of our prayers,” said Tomas Perez Mendez, another of the 20 freed prisoners. “We are confident in the Lord that the rest of the brothers are going to obtain their freedom as well.”

Lopez Entzin added that winning their freedom will not be easy.

“When we were inside El Amate, we began to pray, fast and glorify our Lord Jesus Christ. There are thousands and thousands of brothers who prayed for us inside the jail – thank God He answered those prayers,” he said through tears. “That’s why those brothers who remain behind in El Amate believe that if God’s will is done, they will soon be free.”

Most of the remaining Acteal inmates are evangelical Protestant Christians sentenced to 25- and 36-year prison terms. For years, human rights advocates and legal experts have presented legal arguments showing that the men were convicted on dubious evidence. The district court of the state of Chiapas, however, has consistently ruled against the defendants in appeals.

Attorneys for the defendants finally succeeded in bringing the case before the Federal Supreme Court in Mexico City. The justices who reviewed the case found clear violations of due process and on Aug. 12 overturned the convictions in a 4-1 decision.

The court ruling stated that the decision was not a determination of the guilt or innocence of the men, only that their constitutional rights had been violated during their arrest and conviction.

Though grateful to be free at last, Agustin Gomez Perez admitted that prison was “very difficult, very difficult indeed.”

“There inside the jail, everybody loses,” Gomez Perez said. “I saw it. Many lost their wives, their families, their homes. In the years I was in jail I lost my son. It was May 7, 2005. Twelve families were traveling in a truck to visit us in El Amate. They had an accident, and my 3-year-old son Juan Carlos was killed.”

Inmates expressed gratitude for church groups and international organizations that lent support to their families during their incarceration. Some groups supplied chicks, piglets and coffee plants for wives and children to raise on family plots. A volunteer team of doctors and nurses from Veracruz provides free treatment to prisoners and their dependents.

The prisoners said that one of the greatest helps was regular visits from their families. International Christian organizations raised money for bus fares and chartered vehicles to ensure that the prisoners’ families, who could not otherwise afford the travel, saw their husbands and fathers as often as possible.

Normalcy Not Returned

Despite being freed, the 20 men have yet to resume normal life with their families.

“When I left jail, I didn’t think I would be stuck half-way home,” Gomez Perez said. “I was thinking I would come home and see my wife and children. But we haven’t got there. We are left here half-way home.”

“Half-way home” for the released men is the market district in hot, bustling Tuxtla Gutierrez. They are living in makeshift half-way houses provided by the federal government, awaiting resettlement on land that state authorities have promised them.

Compass met with seven of the former inmates in a rented building they occupy with their wives, children and, in some cases, grandchildren. The families share windowless, sparsely furnished rooms with bare cement floors. Government food rations sustain them. While the half-way house is better than prison, it is nothing like the lush, green Chiapas mountains to which they long to return.

The men agreed to the relocation scheme because the farms they worked before going to prison have long since reverted to their heirs or, in some cases, neighbors. They welcome the assistance to get back on their feet financially.

Government officials, however, insist that the Acteal prisoners must relocate to new communities because they fear violent clashes will flare between them and their old rivals.

The seven freed men were unanimous in their opinion that such confrontations would not happen.

“In the first place, we do not agree with what the government is saying,” Gomez Perez said. “We hold no grudges against those who accused us. What happened, happened. We are not thinking vengeance.”

Perez Mendez agreed with Gomez Perez that the men feel no ill will against those who accused them and no resentment for what they suffered in jail.

“God does not want that we hold grudges or take vengeance against anyone,” he said. “There is not really much danger out there in our communities either. When people saw the news on television on Aug. 12 that we were getting out, they were happy. Well, now we hear that they found out we are not coming home, that we are here in Tuxtla, and some are saying, ‘Why don’t they come home? Tell them to come.’”

The Acteal prisoners have reason to hold grudges. Their attorneys say many of them were arrested in random police sweeps in the days following the massacre simply by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Public indignation over the brutal slayings, fueled by numerous inflammatory press releases from Las Abejas, a civic group whose members were primary targets in the massacre, as well as by the left-leaning human rights organization Fray Bartolomé de las Casas, swelled to fever pitch in December 1997.

Authorities responded by arresting dozens of “suspects,” without evidence or warrants, to quell the outcry.

Some Acteal defendants found themselves accused of the crime by allies of the rebel Zapatista guerrilla army. A land dispute between Zapatista sympathizers and opponents of the rebels intensified during the waning months of 1997, claiming the lives of 18 indigenous men, the majority of them Protestant Christians. Attorneys say indifferent law enforcement officers failed even to investigate the murders, let alone arrest the perpetrators.

Frustrated with the authorities’ foot-dragging and desperate to defend themselves against further aggression, nine indigenous young men armed themselves and confronted their enemies on Dec. 22, 1997. The ensuing firefight and subsequent massacre at the Catholic hermitage in Acteal ended with 45 dead, many of them women and children who were participating in an Abejas-sponsored program that day.

Five of the nine armed men have confessed to participating in the Acteal shootings and insist they acted alone. Those five are serving prison terms in El Amate. Two others were arrested and released because they were minors at the time of the crime. Two more remain at large and, ironically, have reportedly come under the protection of the Zapatistas.

Las Abejas and its allies continue to assert that that the Acteal killings were carried out by “paramilitary” units equipped and assisted by the Mexican army. With the passage of time, many of those who hold this thesis have admitted that most of the Acteal prisoners did not, in fact, participate in the shooting. Nevertheless, they insist that until the “intellectual authors” of the atrocity come forward and confess, not one prisoner – even though innocent of the crime – should be released.

That strange logic has helped to keep more than 50 innocent men in prison for nearly 12 years.

“It is certain that we suffered an injustice for nearly 12 years,” Perez Mendez said. “A lot of people tell us that we are guilty. But as far as we are concerned, God knows all. We did not commit that crime.

He implored Christians to pray for the innocent men who have yet to be released.

Pray as well for we who are not at home in our communities,” he said. “I ask that you not forget us.”Report from Compass Direct News 

SRI LANKA: PARLIAMENT TO VOTE ON ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS


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