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.

Saturday, December 31, 2005

Freedom of religion only for Christians in Papua New Guinea?

The National
Papua New Guinea

As we begin the festive month, I thought I should get my bit in before all the other religious leaders and the politicians overcrowd the newspapers with their messages.

As a constitutional lawyer, I will begin, of course, with the National Constitution. That is the Bible of the legal profession.

Religion is a right that is provided for in Section 45 of the Constitution. But it is intertwined with the right to freedom of conscience and thought and uses the following words: “Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs in such a way as not to interfere with the freedom of others....”

The point to make at the outset is that the preamble of the Constitution states that the nation’s founding fathers pledged themselves and us to “guard and pass on to those who come after us our noble traditions and the Christian principles that are ours”.
By those words the founding fathers declared this country to be a Christian country. What then are the rights of those individuals following religious beliefs that are not Christian in this country?

Firstly by the pledge, there is a duty on every Papua New Guinean, especially every father and mother, to pass on the Christian principles to their children and their descendents. That seems to be the pledge that everyone is required to honour. This then has several implications.

For instance there is the implication in respect to these citizens that are not Christians and who practice animism or are atheists or pagans. Does that mean that there is a duty of every Christian in this country to convert them to Christianity?

There is also the other most important implication bearing in mind the real threat to the world at large and that is associated with the religion of Islam. Does it mean that policy-makers in PNG has to take positive action to refrain from allowing that religion a foothold in this country including refusing any applications from foreign citizens wanting to take up PNG citizenship unless they are practicing Christians?

These two implications are the real issues that will affect the future internal and external security of this nation. They must be dealt with by the government of the day in developing a concerted and clearly laid-out or defined policy in respect to naturalisation of foreigners and the granting of work visas to foreigners intending to take up employment in this country.

The events in France last month can happen in any country where there is no concerted control and clear guidelines in respect to the type of foreigners entering the country.

It is a lesson that must be taken seriously by policy-makers. Already we have problems in Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia and others in the region.
We are so lucky that we do not have a large Muslim population in this country. And so, it is essential that the Government takes a serious look at developing a policy that will ultimately avoid this scourge in future taking root on our land.

Events in Maluku and other islands of Indonesia where there has been outright warfare between gangs of Muslim youths and Christian youths and burning of Christian churches should be carefully studied by policy-makers.

Events in other parts of the world such as Ethiopia and Sudan are also important lessons. The so-called civil wars there are not civil wars or wars between warlords against warlords.

There are questions about the complicity of the governments in those States in fueling the policy of concerted and deliberate elimination of Christian populations in those countries.

So what does the Constitution actually say about the right to freedom of religion? Here is what it says: “Every person has the right to freedom of conscience, thought and religion and the practice of his religion and beliefs, including freedom to manifest and propagate his religion and beliefs in such a way as not to interfere with the freedom of others, except to the extent that the exercise of that right is regulated or restricted by a law that complies with Section 38.” (S. 45)

The wording is clear enough. There is freedom of religion in this country.
It should be noted that these constitutional rights are the rights for every citizen. These guaranteed rights are not necessarily available at all times to a guest of this country under a contract of employment or a short-term visitor.

It is then important to consider the possibility of introducing legislation limiting the introduction of non-Christian religions into this country by non-citizens. How can you do that and still be in compliance with the freedom of religion as expressed in the Constitution?

Section 38 says the right to freedom is a qualified right, meaning that it can be qualified by a law that meets the criteria set out in this section. What are the criteria for any such limitations?

Firstly the law that restricts or regulates this right must be law that is made for the expressed purpose of giving effect to public interest in a number of fields outlined therein as: defence; public safety; public order; public welfare; public health; protection of children and persons under disability; and the development of underprivileged or less advanced groups.

We therefore have seven reasons where the State or Parliament may make laws for the limitation of the right to freedom of religion.
The eighth reason where Parliament may intervene is where the law is required to protect the exercise of the rights and freedoms of others.

Is it then possible to pass migration and work permit laws to restrict the granting of work visas, citizenship by naturalisation, and the granting of short-term visas to persons of religious faiths other than Christians for the reasons of either all or one of the perceived public interest in defence, public safety, public order, public welfare and public health?

It may be possible for a general law to be passed to give authorities the executive power to refuse to grant or terminate visas and citizenship by naturalisation on one of those grounds.

Perhaps a question should now be added on the questionnaire of every applicant for a work visa, work permit and naturalisation about the religion of the applicant to eliminate potential problems of the future.

Subject to the Constitution, perhaps the Government should also consider reserving for itself absolute authority to refuse to grant visas or citizenship by naturalisation to persons other than Christians without specifying any reason.

Here it is also interesting to note that the French are currently toying with the idea of deporting not only naturalised citizens but also citizens by birth to naturalised citizens.
Other countries in Europe may be considering similar tactics. Germany has little concern because their Muslim population is mostly Turks and they have had a bilateral relationship with them for a very long time.

United Kingdom is a slightly different situation because most of the Muslim population there are from former British Colonies in South Asia, namely Pakistan, India and Bangladesh. There is a common language, legal system and you might say also social understanding and culture.

The problems in United Kingdom are largely fueled by radical elements of that religion whose origins are from countries other than these South Asian countries. In fact, these South Asian countries are not immune from these radical elements, as we have witnessed an upsurge of terrorist activities also in those countries in the last few weeks.

Needless to say, it is the responsibility of the Government to protect its citizens and those legitimate visitors and guests in this country. It must look at every conceivable legal and constitutional method for not only dealing with potential threats, if any, but also create a system that will guarantee longer term stability in this country devoid of religious fundamentalism and extremism.

The Government must tell the public what it intends to do to guarantee the safety of its citizens instead of just making general statements that PNG should take the threat of tourism seriously.

The writer is a law lecturer at the University of PNG and former diplomat

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