The Conversion Agenda

"Freedom to convert" is counterproductive as a generalized doctrine. It fails to come to terms with the complex interrelationships between self and society that make the concept of individual choice meaningful. Hence, religious conversion undermines, and in extremes would dissolve, that individual autonomy and human freedom.

Friday, April 08, 2005

Lanka to have 'conscience vote' on religious conversions bill

Hindustan Times
PK Balachandran
Colombo, April 5, 2005|09:51 IST

The Sri Lankan parliament will have a "conscience vote" on the controversial bill to curb "unethical" religious conversions, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa has said.

Revealing this in an interview to the state-owned The Sunday Observer, the Prime Minister said that this was a demonstration of the existence of democracy in Sri Lanka.

There will be no party whip on this issue, and members of the ruling party (and presumably the opposition also) will vote according to their individual conscience.

The bill, drafted by the government, at the instance of the Buddhist monks' party, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) and other Buddhist forces in the island, has come in response to a widespread fear that foreign-funded Christian evangelists are busy converting poor and gullible Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity by offering money, education facilities, employment and medical treatment. These means are considered "unethical" and an undue exploitation of poverty.

A year or two ago, there were a series of attacks on prayer houses of evangelical groups in a number of places in Sri Lanka. The mainstream churches were not attacked because they did not and do not indulge in conversion, at least in the blatant way the smaller, foreign-funded evangelical churches do.

The tsunami disaster, it is felt, has aggravated the problem. It has led to a great influx of such evangelical groups in the guise of tsunami-relief organisations.

But the major political parties of Sri Lanka, including the ruling United Peoples' Freedom Alliance (UPFA) and the United National Front (UNF) have not been in favour of the anti-conversion bill, as these are secular parties which believe in the freedom of religion and the right to spread one's religion. Many of their prominent members are Christians. But all mainstream parties depend on the support of the minorities, Christians included.

But neither of the major parties can afford to ignore a plea by the JHU or any of the spokesmen of the Buddhists, who are 70% of the population of Sri Lanka. The Sinhala Buddhists are the most important political constituency in the island.

However, the ruling party has found a way out of the embarrassment. It has decided to go for the "conscience vote". The party will not dictate. It will leave it to a member to decide for himself. The opposition UNF will take the cue and follow suit.

Known as the "Freedom of Religion Bill," it is expected to be presented in parliament soon. The draft was approved by the cabinet on June 16, 2004. And in February this year, after the Attorney General had certified that it was not inconsistent with the constitution, the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, sought the approval of the cabinet to present the bill to parliament.

According to the preamble of the draft bill, its aim is to promote inter-religious cordiality and the freedom of religion by prohibiting the conversion of persons from one religion to another religion by the exercise of force, coercion, allurement, fraud or other unethical means.

No persons shall either convert another or abet such conversion. No person in a relationship of trust, shall force another person of a different faith to attend a religion meeting and punish him or deny him any privilege he may have otherwise enjoyed, if he did not comply

No person shall accost any other person with a view to converting him to another religion.

Any person who remits, holds, keeps in custody, transfers or uses funds or any material resources for the purpose of conversion shall be deemed guilty of violating the act.

Proceedings under this act could be instituted either by an aggrieved person or by a person authorized by law. Offences under the Act will be deemed cognizable under the Criminal Procedure Code of 1979.

The punishment is imprisonment for a term not exceeding five years and a fine not exceeding SLRs.100, 000. In case the victim is a minor, the prison term would be seven years and a fine not exceeding SLRs.500, 000.

Unethical conversions taking place in institutions like schools, the army, hospitals etc, will be deemed to be particularly grave violations and this will be taken into account while awarding the sentence.

If a corporate body were responsible, every member, employee and office bearer shall be deemed to be guilty unless he is able to prove that the offence was committed without his knowledge.

Foreigners who violate the act shall be deported after serving the sentence handed to them.

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