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

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INDIA: EVIDENCE CONCOCTED AGAINST CHRISTIANS IN MURDER OF HINDU LEADER


Orissa police confirm Maoists killed Saraswati; thousands flee amid continued violence.

NEW DELHI, October 10 (Compass Direct News) – After police in the eastern state of Orissa confirmed this week that Maoists killed Hindu nationalist leader Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati, a Hindu extremist group circulated allegedly forged documents in an attempt to implicate a local church in the Aug. 23 murder.

The Hindu Jagaran Samukhya (Society for Revival of Hinduism or HJS) circulated documents saying the plan to kill Saraswati in Kandhamal district was made at a meeting at Bethikala Church on May 25 attended by 17 people following a briefing and command from religious leaders, the Press Trust of India news agency reported yesterday.

Local Christian leaders responded by saying they will file defamation charges.

“We will file both civil and criminal defamation cases against the person who made such allegations,” Father Joseph Kalathil from the Catholic Archbishop House in Bhubaneswar and the Rev. Fr. Prafulla Ku Sabhapati, president of the Bethikala Parish Council of Kandhamal, said in a statement. “Not only our signatures were forged, the contents of the documents were also fabricated.”

On Oct. 6 Orissa state police confirmed that Maoists killed Saraswati, a day after the chief of the Orissa unit of the banned Communist Party of India-Maoist, Sabyasachi Panda, told NDTV 24X7 news that his organization was behind the murder.

The Maoists killed Saraswati because he was a key leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council or VHP), Panda told the channel. The VHP, he said, used non-tribal traders’ money to build VHP’s youth wing, Bajrang Dal, and ran a campaign against Christians, falsely accusing them of forced conversions and killing cows, considered holy by Hindus.

“This forced us to attack him,” Panda said. “We left two letters claiming responsibility for the murders. But the [Chief Minister Naveen] Patnaik government suppressed those letters. It is a BJP [Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party] government; they will support the VHP. The state government made it look like Christian groups were responsible for the attack. The Christian community in Orissa does not have any Maoist organization supporting them here.”

There were also reports, however, of the Orissa police having arrested three tribal Christians in connection with Saraswati’s murder. The Indian Express reported that the three had confessed their involvement.

A representative of the Christian Legal Association told Compass that according to sources, the police had tortured the three Christians to pressure them to confess a crime they did not commit.

After the assassination of Saraswati, Hindu extremist groups blamed local Christians and began attacks on them, their houses and their churches. The worst violence against Christians in modern India erupted in spite of the Orissa police and media stating on the day of the murder that suspected Maoists killed Saraswati.

According to the All India Christian Council, more than 60 people have been killed, more than 18,000 injured and around 4,500 houses and churches destroyed in the “retributive” violence. Two Christian women, including a nun, were also gang-raped. The violence, which later spread to at least 14 districts of Orissa, has left more than 50,000 people homeless.

 

Attacks Continue

Orissa’s Kandhamal district remained tense even 48 days after the violence began.

Yesterday about 15 houses were burned down by a mob in the Lansaripalli village in Kantamal Block of neighboring Boudh district, The Hindu reported. The attackers came from the Gochhapada area of Kandhamal district.

“Thursday’s was the third incident in Boudh district,” added the daily. “More than 100 houses were burnt down in two separate attacks in the past few days.”

On Wednesday (Oct. 8), a mob burned and looted at least 25 houses belonging to Christians in the Balligada village under Daringbadi police station in Kandhamal’s Nuagam Block, Father Ajay Singh of the Catholic Archdiocese of Bhubaneswar told Compass.

On Tuesday (Oct. 7), over five houses were torched in Jalespanga area under Phiringia police jurisdiction in Kandhamal. Another house was burned in the Sujeli village of G. Udayagiri Block the same day.

The Hindu also said the more than 16,000 Christians living in various relief camps were not returning to their villages, fearing attacks on them if they refused to convert to Hinduism.

Fr. Singh from the Bhubaneswar Archdiocese told Compass that over 12,000 Christians from various relief camps had moved out of Kandhamal to other districts and states, as they feared more attacks.

 

Supporting Violence

The president of the VHP, Ashok Singhal, told Zee News channel on Sunday (Oct. 5), “What Hindu organizations including the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, India’s chief Hindu nationalist group] are doing in Orissa is all legal and is the reaction of the murder of VHP leader Saraswati, who was like Jesus Christ to us.”

In an interview with The Week magazine (Oct. 5), Singhal said that Hindu youth are “ready to die and, if necessary, to kill. [Their] patience is ebbing.”

Singhal added that a “Hindu uprising” had begun, “and the political parties will have to rethink and reinvent themselves, for their own existence. If there is no arrangement for Hindus’ security, they’ll do it on their own. The Hindus will not die. If that self-defence is militancy, so be it … the Hindu never went around the world for suzerainty or to convert … now they are here, undermining us. That causes anger. In fact many want to fight back this harvesting of Hindus.”

In addition, a leader of the Bajrang Dal in the southern state of Karnataka admitted to supporting recent attacks on churches while speaking to The Week magazine. “We supported those who attacked the churches, as it is a justified fight,” Bajrang Dal convenor Mahendra Kumar said.

The violence in Orissa spread to several other states, including Karnataka, where around 20 churches were destroyed and 20 Christians were attacked in the recent weeks.

As many political parties and rights groups have demanded a ban on the Bajrang Dal for attacking Christians and churches in Orissa and other states, the federal government ruled by the United Progressive Alliance has mandated the National Integration Council to give its recommendations, reported the Times of India today.

The Bajrang Dal, however, warned that any such move would have “grave consequences” for the government politically, saying there was “no legal ground” for such an action.

There are 897,861 Christians in Orissa, which has a population of 36.8 million.  

Report from Compass Direct News