Colombo, Constitutional Reform, Human Rights, Religion and faith

The Anti-Conversion Bill violates the freedom of Conscience and the freedom of expression

There is a trend to convert the triumph of the Armed Forces over the LTTE in the north into a triumphal Sinhala-Buddhist ultra nationalism. Their ideology is that the country belongs only to the Sinhala Buddhists and that the other communities be they of different ethnicity or religion must live on the sufferance of the Sinhala Buddhists. It is also part of the ideology that no Buddhist should embrace any other religion and therefore the Christians who seek to make converts of Buddhists should be punished severely, never mind if the convert voluntarily and genuinely accepts the Christian religion and not out of any inducement -material or otherwise offered by anybody who preaches to him. The politicians and civil society groups that are protesting against the killing of journalists and the violation of media freedom must oppose this so-called Anti-Conversion Bill since what is involved is the freedom of expression in preaching different religious  doctrines and it removes the freedom of conscience to change ones religious beliefs.

We as Christians may tolerate the deprivation of social and economic benefits on the ground of being Christians, for that is in accordance with the teachings of Jesus who said “Love your enemies, do good to them that hate you and ill treat you or persecute you. But he also said that his teachings – the Word of God must be proclaimed throughout the world. Jesus warned that it was not going to be easy for it would entail persecution but it is not an exhortation but a command which every Christian is expected to follow. We Christians are required to follow Gods commandments rather than man’s where they clash. So it is our duty to oppose the so-called Anti-Conversion Law tabled by the JHU in Parliament on the 6th of January. It will be taken up in Parliament for the Third Reading after which it will be passed.

Why do we oppose it? It is because it poses a serious threat to genuine conversions and also to the work carried out by Christians in looking after the poor, the disabled, the suffering by running homes for them. It is specifically directed at conversions to Christianity which alone has initiating ceremonies like baptism. Didn’t the cricketer Dilshan who was a Muslim convert to Buddhism?

It is aimed at discouraging if not exactly criminalizing conversions including genuine conversions. Why should this be so if the Bill is aimed only at unethical conversions? The Bill does not cover persons who have no religion although their parents may be Buddhists and they may be discouraged to genuinely convert for they run the risk of becoming branded as criminals owing to the requirement to report their conversion to the Divisional Secretary.

It assumes that just because someone is born to Buddhist parents he or she must be Buddhist. What about the children of mixed marriages between Buddhists and Christians and Muslims or Hindus? Whose religion do they take on? What about parents who don’t believe in any religion and their son or daughter decides to convert to Christianity? They will have to report any such conversion to the Divisional Secretary. Another common circumstance is where the parents of a Christian girl may refuse to marry a Buddhist when the parents may threaten to cut her off from the family inheritance. If the boy then converts to Christianity the parents could be accused of an unethical conversion under this Bill since it could be alleged that the boy’s conversion is not genuine.

There are several matters such as the above which could pose a serious threat to the preaching and social service work of Christians.

This Bill violates the International Covenant on Civil & Political Rights. The Supreme Court cited the Kokkinasis case in Greece in support of restricting the right to manifest the religion. But the European Court on Human Rights (Strasbourg) held that penal provisions imposed upon a Jehova Witness who was instrumental in converting a Christian of the Greek Orthodox Church to being a Jevoah witness was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights [Kokkinakis v Greece (1992) 3 ECHR 348].The European Union requires the government to implement international Covenants on Human Rights to continue to be eligible for GSP plus, a duty concession of 10% which benefits particularly the garment exports. If this Bill is passed it would constitute another ground to refuse GSP plus.

This Bill seeks to legalize persecution of Christians. Armed men and Buddhist monks have attacked Christians using mob force. Pastors have been killed. The anti-Christian Buddhist activists will cite this law to argue that the Christians are resorting to unethical conversions prohibited by law and will prevent the Police from giving protection to Christians under attack. The present State is not in a position to prevent or investigate such attacks for law and order has broken down with armed groups carrying out abductions, kidnappings and murders.

Many Christians are not aware of the dangerous provisions of the Bill. Lay Christian groups are seeking to make the Catholics aware of the serious threats posed by the Bill if it is passed. Other Christian denominations too are engaged in such an awareness campaign. The Christians must oppose the Bill and impress upon politicians that it is a violation of the freedom of conscience and freedom of expression.