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

CHINA: OFFICIALS REACH OUT TO HOUSE CHURCHES; RAIDS, ARRESTS CONTINUE


TSPM offers Bibles and “assistance,” but rights groups say efforts fall short.

DUBLIN, December 9 (Compass Direct News) – In recent months Chinese officials have attempted to build bridges with the Protestant house church movement even as police raided more unregistered congregations, arrested Christian leaders and forced at least 400 college students to swear they would stop attending such worship services.

With rights groups saying more effort is needed to address rights abuses and secure full religious freedom for Chinese Christians, two research institutes – one from the government – organized an unprecedented symposium on Nov. 21-22 that concluded with an agreement for house church leaders to begin a dialogue with government officials.

A delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou provinces attended the seminar, entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of Chinese House Churches,” along with scholars and experts from universities and independent research facilities. Members of the Minorities Development Research Institute, a branch of the China State Council’s Research and Development Centre, and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute co-hosted it.

In a report summarizing the forum, Beijing house church representative Liu Tong Su said that China’s religious institutions and regulations were clearly outdated and inadequate to meet the needs of the church.

At the conclusion of the meeting, house church delegates agreed to dialogue with the government, Liu said, though he insisted, “Only God can control the spirituality of faith. No worldly authorities have the right to control a man’s spirit.”

The government has been entrusted by God with the authority to maintain external public order, Liu added.

“If the government can limit its governing territory to areas of maintaining public order in external conduct, then according to the teachings of the Bible, the house church will definitely obey those in authority within the boundary that God has set,” he said.

Experts presented reports on the rapid development of house church networks, including the number of Christians, geographical distribution, cultural and ethnic make-up and connection with foreign Christians, according to the Gospel Herald.

A month earlier, the chairman of the Three-Self Patriotic Movement (TSPM) – responsible along with the China Christian Council (CCC) for overseeing China’s Protestant churches – told a gathering of 200 Hong Kong church leaders of his desire to assist Chinese house churches and provide them with Bibles, according to Ecumenical News International (ENI).

At the Oct. 22 conference entitled, “Chinese Church – New Leaders, New Challenges,” TSPM Chairman Fu Xianwei declared, “For those house churches without registration, we will try our best to be with them, to recognize them and to help them, so long as they have an orthodox faith, don’t stray from the truth and don’t follow heretics.”

Fu and 11 other members of the newly-elected leadership team of the CCC/TSPM also said they were willing to provide house churches with Bibles, ENI reported.

Bible distribution is largely the responsibility of Amity Press, China’s only official Bible printing company, which recently announced its intention to place more Bibles in the hands of rural Christians. Daniel Willis, CEO of the Bible Society in New South Wales (NSW), Australia, launched an appeal on Nov. 12 to support Amity in this goal.

Speaking at the launch, Willis asserted, “Smuggling Bibles into China places Chinese Christians at risk, and now with the new Amity Press operational in Nanjing, smuggling is a waste of resources.”

Amity opened a new multimillion dollar printing facility in May with a capacity to print 12 million Bibles per year. Most of those Bibles are printed in foreign languages for export outside China.

“China is experiencing a great freedom of worship,” Willis added. “With this wonderful change the church is spreading rapidly … Each Chinese Christian would like to experience the joy … that owning their own Bible brings – but unfortunately for many, obtaining a Bible is difficult and often out of their reach financially.”

The China Aid Association (CAA) issued a statement on Nov. 20 that Amity did not produce enough Bibles to meet the vast needs of the church in China or to replace lost or worn copies. It also pointed out that distribution was still strictly limited to government-approved channels.

Earlier this year, the Rev. Dr. Chow Lien-Hwa, vice-chairman of the board of Amity Press, stated in an interview with the NSW Bible Society that Amity was printing 3 million Bibles per year for mainland China. Chow also outlined a plan to allow Bible distribution through a chain of government bookshops and claimed that house church Christians could buy Bibles from TSPM churches without having to provide personal identity information.

Pastors from both house churches and official TSPM congregations have reported to Compass a shortage of Bibles and other Christian materials in Beijing, the northwest, the northeast, and the southwest. Church growth in tribal areas also has created an urgent need for Bibles in minority languages.

 

Raids, Arrests Continue

Rights groups pointed to recent raids and arrests, however, as confirmation that Chinese authorities still restrict freedom of worship for local house church Christians.

Police raided a house church gathering in Tai Kang county, Henan province on Dec. 3 and arrested all 50 Christians, CAA reported on Thursday (Dec. 4). Public Security Bureau officers also raided another gathering of 50 house church believers in Xiji town, Zaozhuang city, Shandong province on Dec. 2, arresting 20 Christian leaders and demanding a fine of 2,500 yuan (US$365) per person to secure their release.

CAA also confirmed that police carried out multiple raids on house church gatherings in Beijing and in areas near college campuses in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, from late September to early November, detaining leaders of the Local Church house church network. Four leaders in Zhejiang were sentenced to labor camp for 12 to 18 months.

Officers also arrested at least 400 Christian college students. After intense questioning, police forced each student to write a statement of repentance agreeing to forsake such gatherings.

Commenting on reports of persecution in China, Chow of Amity Press claimed victims were not true Chinese citizens, but Chinese with foreign citizenship who had entered China to carry out illegal activities.

“When we go to another country we must be law-abiding citizens of that country,” Chow insisted. “The law, whether you like it or not, says you can only preach in the churches, you cannot go on the street.”

Some house churches are actively seeking registration with authorities to avoid arrests and inconveniences, ENI reported in October. Such groups, however, prefer to register outside the CCC/TSPM structure, disagreeing that different Protestant beliefs can be reconciled under the TSPM as a self-described “post-denominational” umbrella organization.

House church members also object to the TSPM’s interference in congregational practices, according toe the U.S. State Department’s International Religious Freedom Report 2008. The report notes that many unregistered evangelical Protestant groups refuse to register with TSPM due to theological differences, fear of adverse consequences if they reveal names and addresses of church leaders or members, or fear that it will control sermon content.

 

Released from Prison

Responding to international pressure, officials on Dec. 2 released house church pastor Zhu Baoguo of Henan province, citing medical reasons. Authorities had raided a house church gathering on Oct. 12, arresting Zhu and four other leaders, before sentencing Zhu on Oct. 30 to one year in labor camp, CAA reported.

Officials also released house church pastor Wang Weiliang from prison on Nov. 25 for medical reasons, according to CAA. Authorities sentenced Wang to three years in prison in December 2006 for protesting the July 2006 destruction of Dangshanwan Christian church in Xiaoshan, Zhejiang province. Seven other believers were arrested at the time; authorities have released all but one, who remains in detention in Hangzhou.

 

A Breakthrough for China’s House Churches?

At last month’s symposium on Chinese house churches, officials from government research organs, scholars from government think-tanks and universities, independent researchers and an unprecedented delegation of six house church leaders from Beijing, Henan and Wenzhou attended.

At the groundbreaking conference, sponsored by the Minorities Development Research Institute of the China State Council’s Research and Development Center and the Beijing Pacific Solutions Social Science Research Institute and entitled, “Christianity and Social Harmony: A Seminar on the Issue of the Chinese House Churches,” participants discussed every aspect of the house church movement in China.

Statistics were a key issue, with most agreeing that the number of house church members was vast and rapidly increasing. Estimates ranged from 50 million to 100 million members of Protestant house churches, as compared with approximately 20 million members of registered Protestant churches.

Delegates were surprisingly bold in their discussion and criticism of China’s religious policy, and several put forward practical plans for the abolition of institutions such as the State Administration for Religious Affairs (formerly the Religious Affairs Bureau) and the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement.

They also called for serious and ongoing discussions between the government and house churches, and Christian leaders called for the lifting of a ban on house churches and a review of restrictions on church registration and appointment of pastors.

Many participants agreed that the democratic management of house churches in accordance with the rule of law was a logical step to bring religious policies into line with China’s open-door economic policies.

While certain sectors of leadership may welcome these suggestions, others entrenched in the atheist system of the Communist Party were expected to balk at such reforms.  

Report from Compass Direct News

KENYA: ISLAMISTS ATTACK CHURCH IN NORTHERN TOWN


Effort to replace building with mosque injures 10 Christians, ruins structure.

GARISSA, Kenya, September 29 (Compass Direct News) – A longstanding effort to replace a church with a mosque in Kenya’s northern town of Garissa culminated in an attack by 50 Muslim youths this month that left the worship building in ruins.

The gang stormed the building of Redeemed Gospel Church on Sept. 14 and pelted the congregation with stones, sending many Christians fleeing while others became embroiled in fistfights. Ten Christians received hospital treatment for minor injuries and were released.

Church leaders said the Muslim mob also destroyed pews, damaged the church building’s walls of corrugated iron, smashed the glass-mounted pulpit and burned the church banner with its stand.

“We had just started the Sunday service when, without warning, a rowdy group of about 50 Muslim youths invaded the church, pelting stones at us and destroying our structures,” said the church youth chairman, identified only as Suma.

Local media reported that the 10 church members were hospitalized, but a district nurse at the hospital told Compass that no one was admitted due to the violence. A church elder at East Africa Pentecostal Church in Garissa, about 400 kilometers (249 miles) from Nairobi, confirmed that the church members were treated at the hospital and allowed to go home.

Tensions between Christians and the Muslim-majority population in the semi-desert town of 20,000 people began simmering after Muslims built a mosque next to the church plot at No. 21 Windsor in June 2007. Purchasing its land on Nov. 1, 1999, the church had begun worshipping there by early 2001, eventually growing to 400 members.

Church leaders complained to the district commissioner in June 2007 that the new mosque was built too close to the church – only three meters separate the two structures – and that it was blocking the church entryway.

“Prior to that, the owner of that land had promised to use half of it and sell the other half to the church,” the church leaders reported to the district commissioner in June 2007. “But in 2007, she changed her mind and gave it to the sheikhs to build the mosque. We reported the matter to the DC’s office that it would not go well with the church.”

Officials had ruled that no further permanent structures were to be set up on the land by either party until a later date to be determined by the district commissioner.

“The church faithfully obeyed, but the Muslims defied the orders and began immediately to put up a permanent structure,” according to the letter church leaders wrote to the district commissioner. The building of the mosque was allegedly sponsored by M.K. Roble, a wealthy Muslim in Garissa, according to the letter.

“The problems between the church and the Muslims began and have escalated since then,” it states.

Government security intelligence had reported that Muslims planned to destroy the church if it continued to operate within the residential area, District Commissioner (DC) Alois Okango told Compass. The administration had proposed a new site for the church to worship, Jamhuri Club, but two days before the attack church leaders wrote two letters to Okango saying they would remain worshipping in their building.

“We would like to notify you that our church members have decided to have our Sunday service at our usual place on September 14 and not at the new site of Jamhuri Club,” they wrote in one of the letters, “because we have come to realize that the new site is only temporary, and we will only move out of our premise if we are guaranteed a permanent place of worship.”

Okango told Compass that to avert a crisis, the administration has decided that the church should relocate temporarily to a site near an agricultural showground. The government also advised the church to sell its property near the mosque and buy another piece of land, preferably outside Garissa town center.

This suggestion, Okango told Compass, did not augur well with church members, who felt they had already established the church at the site and that it was the mosque that should be moving.

“The Christians threatened to go and worship in the ruined premises if no action was taken,” Okango said. “They said they were ready to die for the sake of their faith.”

The government is striving to avert further incidents by preventing the Christians from returning to the ruined structure, according to a Provincial Police official identified only as Chelimo. With tensions expected to rise during the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, he said police were taking precautionary measures to ensure that the congregation never returned to their property.

“To allow this would be suicidal,” Chelimo told Compass. “We have deployed five security guards every day to make sure that the members of the church will not enter its structure.”

 

Elusive Justice

Wondering why those who attacked the church had not been arrested and charged in court, Redeemed Gospel Church pastor David Matolo said the government should punish the assailants.

“The church has the right to be protected by the government – allowing the minority Christians to suffer is quite wrong,” Pastor Matolo told Compass. “Why should the Muslims interfere with the church’s worship? I as their pastor cannot shy away when my members are ill-treated. We are ready to pay the price, but we want justice to be done.”

He said church leaders had agreed on an alternative site only to have the district commissioner suddenly revoke it.

“The DC had promised to locate us to the provincial residential area, and we had cleared the said site, only to be stopped without prior notice,” Pastor Matolo said. “Now we have no place to worship.”

A missionary from Tanzania who works in the area informed Compass that Muslims have distributed leaflets threatening to destroy all churches in Garissa. They have also threatened to burn Garissa’s open-air market operated by Christians from “down Kenya,” that is, non-Muslims, he said.

The missionary said the safety of the more than 2,000 Christians in Garissa is in jeopardy, and he appealed to the government to protect the right of worship of all people.

“It is quite unfair that the Redeemed Gospel Church has been displaced and is now praying under a tree in an open space with no amenities,” he said.

District Commissioner Okango said that the administration must protect Muslims from the noise of worship emanating from church at night that has disturbed residents, as well as prevent clashes. In both the mosque and church, loud speakers had been set up facing each other with confrontational messages blaring from each.

“The government is sensitive to the feelings of the people,” Okango said. “We cannot allow disorder to reign in North Eastern Province in the name of religious patriotism.”

Land issues alone have not been responsible for tensions in the area. The Rev. Ibrahim Kamwaro, chairman of the Pastors’ Fellowship in Garissa, said Pastor Matolo had offended Muslims when he preached to a lame Muslim man.

Muslims were said to be upset that the pastor persuaded the disabled man to stop going to the mosque and instead join his church. Pastor Matolo’s alleged promise to the disabled man of a better life offended area Muslims, Rev. Kamwaro said.

Muslims restrict churches in Garissa in various ways: Christians are not allowed conduct prayers, sing or use musical instruments in rented homes owned by Muslims. No teaching of Christian Religious Education in schools is allowed; only Islamic Religious Knowledge is taught.

Garissa has more than 15 Christian denominations, the main ones being the East Africa Pentecostal Church, the Redeemed Gospel Church, the Anglican Church, Deliverance Church, the Full Gospel Churches of Kenya, the Africa Inland Church and African Christian Churches and schools.

Report from Compass Direct News