Sri Lanka to Vote on Anti-Conversion Bill

The Sri Lankan government will cast a deciding vote on anti-conversion legislation in April despite sharp criticism, news agencies and persecution watchdogs reported this week.

The “Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom,” approved in principle by the Sri Lankan cabinet in June 2004, stipulates that no person should “attempt to convert or aid or abet acts of conversion of a person to a different religion,” according to a recent report by Compass Direct. In practical terms, the Act makes conversion from one religion to another illegal under any circumstances.

Last year, two separate anti-conversion bills were proposed—one by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a Buddhist political party; and one by Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, the Minister of Buddhist Affairs.

In August 2004, the Supreme Court ruled JHU’s “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion” unconstitutional, pointing out that two sections of the bill violated the constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Meanwhile, Wickremanayake’s “Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom,” which Compass reports as being ore stringent than the JHU bill, aims to “prohibit conversion to other religions,” according to an article in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror on Mar. 18.

“A person found guilty of contravening these provisions will be liable for a prison sentence of not over five years or a fine not exceeding 100,000 rupees [$1,005],” the Daily Mirror wrote, according to Compass.

Additionally, “If the offense is committed against a minor, the accused will be liable for a prison sentence not exceeding seven years or a fine not exceeding 500,000 rupees [$5,027].”

Should the Act become law, it will almost certainly affect tsunami relief efforts carried out by religious groups. Under the new law, acts of charity and goodwill may be viewed as attempts at conversion, leaving relief organizations open to stiff government penalties and possible imprisonment.

Compass reports that Cabinet Minister Jeyaraj Fernandopulle acknowledged the controversial nature of the bill and said MPs [Members of Parliament] would be free to vote “according to their own conscience,” rather than along party lines.

Meanwhile, many Christians feel the bill—like the JHU’s—is an attempt by the Buddhist party to suppress the growth of Christianity and stir up popular opposition to the Christian faith following the notable decline of Buddhism and the growth of Christian churches in rural areas.

Currently, Christians constitute eight percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 19.9 million people.

Compass states that MPs are expected to cast a deciding vote on Wickremanayake’s bill in April.