Churches and Christian organizations are worried they will have to be more careful when they help the poor if an anti-conversion law is passed next month by the Parliament of Sri Lanka.
A standing committee approved of the draft "Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions" in early January with a few minor amendments, paving the way for Parliament to take a final vote in February, according to the religious persecution watchdog group Compass Direct News.
If the anti-conversion bill is passed, any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another by the use of force, fraud or allurement will result in serious punishments. Those found guilty of breaking the law can be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (U.S. $4,425) – the equivalent of about three years' wages for the average person in Sri Lanka.
The country's Christian community has strongly objected to the draft bill, arguing that the legislation will be abused to bring false charges against people of faith and restrict the freedom of religion.
"It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged 'forced' conversion," read a recent statement by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).
Sri Lankan Christians noted that key parts in the draft bill are vague, thus legitimate religious activity as well as social action by faith-based groups could be criminalized.
"A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not," a lawyer told Compass. "Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act."
A draft of the anti-conversion bill was first introduced in 2004 by a member of the Buddhist political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU or National Heritage Party).
Leaders in the Christian community had filed petitions in the Supreme Court against the draft legislation. The Supreme Court ended up ruling that the draft bill is valid except for a few clauses that it considered unconstitutional.
The clauses included requiring someone who converts or participates in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official or be punished for failure to report it.
The parliamentary standing committee amended the draft bill according to what the Supreme Court determined was unconstitutional in its version presented to the Parliament this month.
In February, a simple majority vote by the Parliament of Sri Lanka would pass the anti-conversion bill into law.
Sri Lanka's population is 69 percent Buddhist, 8 percent Muslim, 7 percent Hindu, and 6 percent Christian, according to the CIA World Factbook. The Christian population is overwhelmingly Roman Catholic, with only 1 percent of the population being Protestant Christian.