U.S. Congressmen Press Sri Lanka to Drop Anti-Conversion Bill

A bipartisan group of U.S. congressmen has sent a strong message to Sri Lanka criticizing its pending anti-conversion bill and urging the government to drop the "overbroad" legislation.

"We believe that this proposed legislation will harm, not protect, the freedom of religion of the Sri Lankan people," states the letter signed by 15 U.S. congressmen and sent to Sri Lanka's ambassador to the United States, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, who received it on Thursday.

"This anti-conversion bill is overbroad and targets all religious conversions, not just 'unethical conversions,'" it adds.

The proposed bill, entitled "Prohibition of Forcible Conversions," calls for fines of up to 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($4,425 USD) and up to seven years in prison for trying to convert a Sri Lankan citizen from one religion to another by using "force, fraud or allurement."

Critics of the bill, however, have highlighted the 2005 report by Asma Jahangir, the U.N. special rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who did not find any evidence of forced conversions during her mission to Sri Lanka. They also note that Sri Lanka already has laws that would address and punish "unethical" conversions.

"Quite simply, this law will extinguish freedom of religion, expression, and association for all Sri Lankans," the signers of the recently delivered letter argue. "Anti-conversion laws, such as the proposed bill, are easily abused by lower officials and used to harass and persecute minority religious groups or to settle petty personal disputes."

Furthermore, the proposed legislation could also criminalize charitable acts, humanitarian aid, and peaceful religious dialogues, the congressmen warn.

"The right to worship as dictated by one's conscience is a basic fundamental human right, and one that is the foundation of any truly free society," said Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who organized the letter, in a statement.

An almost identical letter signed by 20 leading human rights activists representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Bahia and interfaith organizations was also sent to the Sri Lankan ambassador one week earlier.

The anti-conversion bill was first introduced in 2004 by the Buddhist Nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) – or National Heritage Party. At that time, the bill failed to pass and Sri Lankan officials had assured religious and human rights groups that it would not be revived.

Even as late as last February, the previous Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States had stated at a public forum in Washington, D.C., that the anti-conversion bill was dead, and would never "see the light of day."

However, in January of this year, a standing committee approved of a draft anti-conversion bill with only a few minor amendments.

A final vote by Sri Lanka's parliament is expected to pass the anti-conversion bill this month without intervention.