Burmese Officials Order Closure of Chin Church

Government punishes pastor for refusing to wear campaign T-shirt, amid other election abuses.

DUBLIN, November 18 (CDN) — Officials in Mergui Region, Burma, ordered a Baptist church to cease holding worship services after the pastor refused to wear an election campaign T-shirt supporting the military government’s Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

The election commission summoned 47-year-old Pastor Mang Tling of Dawdin village, Gangaw township, Mergui Region on Nov. 9, two days after the election and ordered him to stop holding services and discontinue the church nursery program, the Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO) reported yesterday.

The CHRO works against human rights abuses, including religious discrimination, for the Chin people, a minority group in Burma’s northwest estimated to be 90 percent Christian.

Village headman U Than Chaung had given the pastor a campaign T-shirt to wear in support of the USDP, and when he refused to wear it, the headman filed a report with local authorities accusing him of persuading Christian voters to vote in favor of an opposing party.

Under Burmese law, religious leaders can be penalized for “engaging in politics,” giving the pastor a solid legal reason to decline the T-shirt. The law also bans leaders of religious groups from voting in national elections, according to the CHRO, although lay members of those groups are able to vote.

“The election law is quite vague,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass today. “One of the things we were watching out for during the election was to see if church elders or council members might be excluded from voting. But these people were able to vote. The law seems to apply only to pastors, monks and imams.”

Officials interrogated Mang Tling in Gangaw until Sunday (Nov. 14), when he was allowed to return home.

Meantime, the USDP won the election amid widespread evidence of “advance” voting and other forms of voter manipulation throughout Burma.

Previously known as the Union Solidarity and Development Association, and before that the State Peace and Development Council, the USDP was formed by a ruling junta composed largely of army generals. The junta has ruled Burma without a constitution or parliament since 1998, although in 2008 they pushed through support for a new constitution that will take effect following this month’s elections, according to the 2010 International Religious Freedom report released yesterday by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

The new constitution forbids “abuse of religion for political purposes,” the report stated. Election laws published in March also banned members of religious orders from voting for or joining political parties and reserved 25 percent of seats in the new parliament for members of the military.

The 2008 constitution “technically guarantees a degree of religious freedom. But then, it’s Burma,” a CHRO spokesman told Compass.


Voter Intimidation

The Chin National Party defeated the USDP in three electorates in Chin state despite reports of widespread voting anomalies, some of which were outlined in a CHRO press release on Nov. 7.

In Tedim township northern Chin state, for example, USDP agent Go Lun Mang went to the home of a local resident at 5 p.m. the day before the election and told the family that he had already voted on their behalf in favor of the USDP. He added that soldiers in a nearby camp were ready to arrest them if they complained.

On Nov. 5, the local government had already ordered village officials to instruct residents to vote for the USDP. On Nov. 7, the day of the election, USDP agents in campaign uniforms stood at the gate of the polling station in Tedim and asked voters if they intended to vote for the USDP. Those who said yes were allowed into the station, while those who said no were refused entrance.

USDP agents also warned Chin voters in Thantlang town that they should vote for the USDP “while the door was open” or they would regret it, Burma News International reported on Nov. 5.

David Mathieson, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the intimidation indicated that the junta and the USDP knew how unpopular they were.

Reports by the CHRO show a long history of discrimination against the majority Christian Chin, including the destruction of crosses and other Christian monuments, state-sponsored efforts to expand Buddhism, forced contributions of finance and labor to Buddhist construction projects, arrest and detention, torture and particularly harsh treatment of pastors. In addition, officials have refused construction for all new church building projects since 2003.

A report issued by HRW in January confirmed serious and ongoing abuses against Chin Christians.

One Chin pastor interviewed by HRW described how soldiers held him at gunpoint, forced him to pray in a Buddhist pagoda and told him that Burma was a Buddhist country where Christianity should not be practiced. (See “Report Documents Abuse of Chin Christians,” Feb. 20.)



Suu Kyi’s Release Stirs Guarded Hope among Burma’s Christians

NEW DELHI, November 18 (Compass Direct News) – The release of democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest in Burma on Saturday (Nov. 13) has sparked cautious optimism about human rights among Christians and the country’s ethnic minorities even as the junta does battle with armed resistance groups.

Freeing her six days after elections, the military regime of Burma (also known as Myanmar) kept 1991 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Suu Kyi from running in the country’s first election in 20 years, but ethnic minorities are still “very happy” and “enthused with hope and anticipation,” said Plato Van Rung Mang, who heads the India chapter of Chin Human Rights Organization.

Suu Kyi is the only leader from the majority Burmese community – predominantly Buddhist – who is trusted by the ethnic minorities, said Mang, an India-based Christian originally from Burma’s Chin state, which borders India.

“We have faith in Suu Kyi’s honesty and leadership, and she has been our hope,” he added.

The ethnic Chin, Kachin, Karen and Karenni people – many of whom are Christian – as well as mostly Buddhist ethnic Shan, Mon and Arakanese (some of them Muslim) people have been fighting for self-determination in their respective states and opposing the military junta’s policy of centralized control and Burmese dominion.

“We trust that Suu Kyi can fulfill her father’s ideal and political principles which have been subverted by the Burmese military junta’s Burmanization policy,” said Mang. Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, was the nation’s leader at the time of independence and favored autonomy for ethnic minorities.

“Just as her father was trusted and held in high esteem by the ethnic people, Aung San Suu Kyi also has the ability to work together with the minorities to build a better, peaceful Burma where the human rights of all citizens are respected and protected,” said Garrett Kostin, a U.S. citizen who runs the Best Friend Library, built by a Buddhist monk in support of Suu Kyi, in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.

While sections of the ethnic communities have been involved in armed resistance against the junta’s rule, many local residents in the region remain unarmed but are also at risk of being killed in the post-election conflict.

In the wake of the Nov. 7 election, as expected (See “Burma’s Ethnic Christians Fear Bleak Future after Election, Oct. 22), clashes between armed ethnic groups and the Burmese army erupted in three of the seven ethnic states – Karen, Shan and Mon – mainly along Thailand and China border, reported Thailand-based Burma News International. The violence has resulted in an influx of over 20,000 people into Thailand – the largest flow in the last five years.

According to US-based Refugees International, the Thai government forced many of the asylum seekers back.

There are also tensions in Kachin and Karenni states, which could erupt at any time, between the Burmese army and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, the Karen National Union, the Kachin Independence Army, the Shan State Army-North, and the Karenni National Progressive Party.

Rights advocates, however, were still heartened by Suu Kyi’s release.

It’s “a wonderful opportunity for the ethnic minorities of Burma to unify in support of each other’s rights and desires,” said Kostin.

In September 2007, many Buddhist monks joined democracy activists in street protests against the military regime’s decision to cut fuel subsidies, leading to a sharp rise in gas and diesel prices. Known as the Saffron Revolution, the protests resulted in hundreds of deaths as government security personnel resisted it militarily.

In numerous clashes between the repressive military regime and political opponents and ethnic minorities, over 3.5 million Burmese have been displaced and thousands killed over the years.

Suu Kyi will continue to enjoy the trust of ethnic minorities because “she has been working so hard since the beginning [of her political career] to speak out about the plight of ethnic people with an honest and sincere commitment,” said Bangkok-based Soe Aung, deputy secretary for Foreign Affairs of the Forum for Democracy in Burma.

Chiang Mai-based Christian relief group Free Burma Rangers (FBR) recalled that Suu Kyi, the general secretary of the National League for Democracy, along with allies won more than 80 percent of the seats in parliament “in Burma’s only truly democratic election” in 1990. “The military regime, however, did not recognize the results and continued to hold power,” it said in a statement.

Last week’s election was “neither free nor fair,” FBR said, adding that “thousands of political prisoners [estimated at 2,200] are still in jail, ethnic minorities are attacked [on a regular basis], and the people of Burma remain under oppression.

“Still, we are grateful for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi as she is a leader who gives real hope to the people of Burma.”

An FBR team leader who spoke on condition of anonymity recalled Suu Kyi requesting his prayers when he met with her during a brief period when she was not under house arrest in 1996.

“The Global Day of Prayer for Burma and the ethnic unity efforts we are involved in are a direct result of that meeting,” the leader said. “As she told me then, one of her favorite quotes is, ‘You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.’”

Some Christians, however, remained cautious.

“Although San Suu Kyi wants Burma to be a true federal country, there is no certainty in the hearts of the Karen people because they have suffered for very long, and the so-called Burmese have turned their backs on them several times,” said a Karen Christian from Chiang Mai who identified himself only as Pastor Joseph.

La Rip, a Burmese activist in China, also said that while Suu Kyi deserved to enjoy freedom, she and her party “do not seem to have a clear idea on how to solve the long-standing issues” related to ethnic minorities.

For her part, Suu Kyi spelled out a plan to hold a nationwide, multi-ethnic conference soon after she was freed. Her father held a similar meeting, known as the Panglong Conference, in 1947. Aung San, then representing the Burmese government, reached an agreement with leaders from the Shan, Kachin and Chin states to accept full autonomy in internal administration for the ethnic controlled frontier areas after independence from Britain.

Suu Kyi’s planned conference is seen as the second Panglong Conference, but it remains uncertain if the new Burmese regime, which is likely to be as opposed to ethnic minorities as the junta, will allow her plan to succeed.

In the awaited election results, the junta’s proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), is likely to have majority in parliament to form the next government. Suu Kyi’s party had been disbanded by the military regime, and only a small splinter group ran in the election.

It is also feared that Suu Kyi, who was under house arrest for nearly 15 years since 1990 until her release last weekend, could face assassination attempts or fresh charges followed by another term under arrest.

Burma has a population of around 50 million, out of which around 2.1 million are estimated to be Christian.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christian Assaulted in Orissa State, India

Extremists in Kandhamal vowed to kill a Christian around date of Hindu leader’s death.

NEW DELHI, September 9 (CDN) — Suspected Hindu nationalists in an area of Orissa state still tense from 2008 anti-Christian violence beat a Catholic father of seven until he fell unconscious on Aug. 20, the 47-year-old victim said.

Subhash Nayak told Compass that four unidentified men assaulted him as he made his way home to Laburi village from the hamlet of Kapingia in Kandhamal district. Hindu extremists in Kandhamal district killed more than 100 people in several weeks of attacks following the murder of Hindu extremist leader Swami Laxamananda Saraswati.

An 80-year-old monk who for decades spearheaded the anti-conversion movement in Orissa’s tribal-dominated areas, Saraswati was shot dead on Aug. 23, 2008. Area church leaders such as Biswajit Pani of Khurda told Compass that villagers in Laburi have planned to attack at least one Christian around that date every year.

Nayak said the assailants left him for dead.

“I could not see their faces as it was very dark, and they tried to poke my eyes with their sticks,” said Nayak, still in pain. “They stomped on my chest with their feet and hit me relentlessly till I fell unconscious. They left me thinking I was dead.”

Nayak said that he was returning from work at a construction site in Kapingia when, about a kilometer from his home in Laburi, a stone hit him. Four men appeared and began beating him.

The stone struck him in the forehead between 7 and 8 in the evening as he was riding his bicycle, he said.

“As I fell on the road with sharp pain, figuring out who hit me, four people came and started to hit me with wooden sticks,” Nayak said.

Asserting that no one had any personal enmity toward him, Nayak said that Hindu extremists in Kandhamal district have been telling people, “We destroyed and burned their houses and churches, which they have rebuilt, but now we will attack their lives, which they cannot rebuild.”

Pani and another area Christian, retired school teacher Tarsish Nayak, said they also had heard Hindu nationalists spreading this message.

Nayak recalled that a year ago, while returning to his village at night around the anniversary of Saraswati’s murder, he heard someone whispering, “Here he comes … He is coming near,” at which point he fled.

“There were people hiding, seeking to attack me,” he said.

Saraswati, a leader of the Hindu extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council), was assassinated by a Maoist group, but Christians were falsely blamed for it. The ensuing anti-Christian attacks killed more than 100 people and burned 4,640 houses, 252 churches and 13 educational institutions. Violence also erupted in Kandhamal district during Christmas week of 2007, killing at least four Christians and burning 730 houses and 95 churches.

The area where Nayak lives and works was one of the worst-hit in the anti-Christian attacks that took place after Saraswati’s assassination.

After regaining consciousness, Nayak strained to stand up and felt blood dripping down his cheeks, he said. His bicycle was lying at a distance, its front light broken.

Nayak said he was not sure how long he lay unconscious on the road, but it was 11 p.m. by the time he managed to walk home. He said it was only by God’s grace that he “slowly, slowly reached home.”

“‘I am dying,’ were my words as I entered home and fell unconscious again,” Nayak said.

His wife Mamta Nayak, two of his children, his parents and eight villagers carried the unconscious Nayak on a cot three kilometers before getting him into an auto-rickshaw and on to Raikia Government Hospital at 1 a.m.

A doctor was summoned from his home to attend to Nayak, who required stitches on the right side of his forehead. He sustained injuries to his right knee, face, an area near the ribs and chest, and he still has difficulty chewing food, Nayak said.

“I feel nausea and pain in my head as I move my jaw,” he said.

Feeling weak from blood loss, Nayak received a saline solution intravenously for eight days in the hospital. He said he earns very little and had to sacrifice some of his valuables to pay the medical expenses. The doctor advised him to undergo a head scan, which he has eschewed as he cannot afford it, he said.

Pani told Compass that Nayak has refused to file any complaints with police out of fear of retaliation.

Nayak explained, “The police will not take any action, and we have seen in the past that I will be threatening my life by doing so.”

Report from Compass Direct News

Buddhists in India Assault Christian Aid Worker, Friend

Assailants, still at large, abduct and threaten blind volunteer, associate and pregnant wife.

NEW DELHI, September 6 (CDN) — A visually impaired Christian and his friend accused drunken Buddhists of abducting and assaulting them last week after the blind volunteer distributed relief material in a Buddhist-majority town in a region of India devastated by recent floods.

The attackers are still at large after the assault on Wednesday (Sept .1) in the town of Leh in Jammu and Kashmir state’s Ladakh region, where flooding and landslides destroyed hundreds of houses and killed around 200 people on Aug. 6.

The attackers, identified as members of the Ladakh Buddhist Association (LBA), one of the region’s largest and most influential Non-Governmental Organizations, abducted Ram Kumar Thapa, Stanzin Chosphel and his pregnant wife Putali Sherpa because of their Christian faith and beat the men, the victims said.

Thapa, a blind music teacher in his 30s, was abducted from Mahabodhi Gate in Choglamsar area in Leh, where he was distributing relief material, at around 7 p.m. on Wednesday, according to the complaint he filed on Thursday (Sept. 2) with the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission.

LBA members were upset that Thapa was preaching Christianity to displaced residents, according to his complaint. The Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief, a Christian relief agency, is rebuilding homes for the displaced people, mostly Buddhists, in the area.

“I was attacked physically by several unknown assailants before other witnesses nearby,” Thapa stated in the complaint. “Then these men forced me into a vehicle and continued beating me all over my body as they spoke in Ladakhi to each other.”

Thapa, from the eastern state of West Bengal, also stated that the Buddhists contemplated killing him. “They discussed whether to take my life or return to the ‘office,’” he said.

The assailants took Thapa to the office of the LBA in Soma Monastery, where a Buddhist monk was also present, and beat him again, he stated. He was then moved to a room where he could hear the voice of his friend, Chosphel, with his pregnant wife.

Chosphel, a convert from Buddhism, is from Ladakh and his wife is from Nepal. The Buddhist assailants had taken them from their house in the Skalzaling area in Leh after Thapa, under pressure from the LBA members, identified them as his associates, according to the Christian victims.

The attackers showed Thapa’s bruised and bleeding face to Chosphel to warn him against continuing as a Christian, Thapa stated. He was then taken back to the vehicle.

“They placed a gunny sack with a rope onto my lap and explained that this would be my last bed … [after] they throw me into the Indus River and see if a blind man can swim and save himself,” Thapa stated. “I became terribly afraid, since I could smell alcohol on their breath as we sat in the vehicle.”

Thapa begged that his life be spared “so I could see my wife, who must be worried since it was late now.” The kidnappers replied, “Your wife will see you when she finds your body by the river bank,” he stated.

Thapa and his wife, also visually impaired, teach and live at Mahabodhi Residential School for handicapped children.

Thapa stated that when he asked what they wanted from him, “they said I had to leave Ladakh with my family within two days or else they would kill me and my family. It was around 1 a.m. when they dropped me back to my house, bruised and trembling.”

Thapa went to the Housing Colony Police Station on Thursday (Sept. 2) and found out that Chosphel also was there to file his complaint.

Chosphel confirmed that the “office” they were taken to belonged to the LBA. In his complaint to the commission, Chosphel said that around 15 “heavily drunken” men came to abduct him and his wife in their black Bolero, a mid-size SUV.

In the courtyard of the LBA facility, the Buddhists beat Chosphel before his wife, who pleaded for them to stop and asked why they were being assaulted.

“They threatened to beat her as well if she did not keep silent,” Chosphel stated. “Then they dragged me into a room and gagged my mouth so I could not cry out as they beat me with rubber pipes and rods and fists continuously. All along they kept telling me to leave my wife and also renounce my faith in Christianity and return to Buddhism.”

The men released the couple at around 12:30 a.m. after giving them two days to leave Leh or convert to Buddhism, Chosphel stated, “or else they will chop my wife into pieces and kill me and also kill my family … who are still practicing Buddhists.”

The attackers also confiscated their mobile phones.

The victims told Compass that they were still facing a threat on their lives even after filing complaints with police.

Additional Superintendent of Police Stanzin Nurboo told Compass that no one had been arrested because the victims could not name the accused.

Chosphel and his wife, however, told Compass that they would be able to identify the attackers if they saw their faces; at press time, however, they said police had not contacted any of them to do so.

Religious conversion is a sensitive issue in Leh, which borders Pakistan and Tibet, as it is seen as an attack on its distinct religious and cultural identity.

Citing religious and cultural differences with the otherwise Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir state, some residents of Ladakh have been asking for union territory status for the region.

As a concession, the Ladakh region was bifurcated into Muslim-majority Kargil district and Buddhist-majority Leh district in 1979, and the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council was also created in 1995 to grant some autonomy to Leh and Kargil districts.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir continues to have responsibility for maintaining law and order and is in charge of the judicial system, communications and higher education.

Of the population of 117,232, over 80 percent of the people in Leh are Buddhist. Muslims make up around 15 percent of the population, Hindus 3 percent and Christians 0.2 percent.

Report from Compass Direct News


Villagers demand money, compel mourners to chant Buddhist mantras.

DHAKA, Bangladesh, May 21 (Compass Direct News) – Buddhist villagers in southeastern Bangladesh forced Christians to participate in a Buddhist cremation rite for a deceased family member last weekend and demanded money for a post-funeral ceremony.

Uttam Lal Chakma, 55, died last Friday (May 15) after a long illness in Dighinala sub-district of Khagrachari hill district, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) southeast of Dhaka. A member of Mynasukhnachari Baptist Church in the Babuchara neighborhood, Chakma had converted from Buddhism to Christianity two years ago.

Pastor Vubon Chakma and Christian villagers sought to give him a Christian burial the next day, but a hostile group of local Buddhists forcibly stopped them from doing so, according to a local Christian source.

The source told Compass that a member of the Buddhist group told family members, “He was born as a Buddhist, and he will be buried as a Buddhist.”

Local Buddhists prohibited the Christian burial at the behest of the village committee chairman, the source said.

“Forcefully they cremated him by wood log and forced other Christians who were present there to utter Buddha mantras,” the source said.

Christian villagers subsequently requested that they be allowed to bury the charred bones. They dug a grave and were praying and reading Bible verses when Buddhist villagers, some of them drunk, arrived and brought the ceremony to a halt.

“They said to the Christians, ‘You cannot read the Bible here,” the church source said, requesting that the names of the Buddhist leaders be withheld for security reasons.

One of the senior pastors of the Babuchara Baptist church, 60-year-old Pitambar Chakma, tried to reason with the enraged Buddhists, but they confined him and Vubon Chakma for the night.

The source added that they demanded 12,000 taka ($US177) to hold a post-funeral ceremony today, to which they planned to invite more than 250 Buddhists, including their local monk.

“They threatened that if we do not give it before May 21, we have to give them 24,000 taka, twice as much as they wanted,” the source said. “They also threatened if 12,000 taka is not given to them, pastor Vubon Chakma and his father will be evicted from the society. This is a sign of unremitting hostility toward Christians by Buddhists.”

At press time the amount had not been given, but the area Buddhists had taken no action, the source said.

The village Buddhists also protested when Christians constructed a church building eight months ago, he said.

“Always they force all the people here to become Buddhist and males to shave their heads,” he said.

Besides threats of expulsion, local Buddhists have also disparaged Christian converts in foul language, and there have been instances of torture, the source said, adding that there are 22 Christians in the area.

“We have no one to complain to about them,” the church source said. “If we protest against them, it is dangerous because they have links with an underground armed group. If we inform the administration or law enforcement agencies, they do not help us because of our conversion.”

The local Buddhists have ties with United People’s Democratic Front (UPDF) militants who oppose a 1997 peace accord between the government and the tribal people. The hill tract areas had suffered unrest for decades, and hostilities continue as a leading proponent of the peace accord urged the government to ban UPDF for alleged terrorist activities, according to today’s The Daily Prothom Alo.

Report from Compass Direct News


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