Monk Parliamentarians Stir Hornets' Nest

In the midst of the continuing debate in Sri Lanka over the moral right of the Buddhist clergy to take on politics, fresh controversy has been created by a group of Buddhist monk-MPs who have proposed laws to ban religious conversions.

One of the main planks of the nine Buddhist monk-MPs representing the National Heritage Party (JHU) is to stop what they call widespread conversion of Buddhists by fundamentalist Christians.

A bill was tabled in Parliament, last fortnight, as a private member's motion by opposition parliamentarian Ven Omalpe Sobitha of the JHU to arrest this current conversion trend with law.

Scores of Christian churches have been attacked or destroyed in the past two years by majority Sinhalese groups but the JHU has denied any involvement in the attacks.

The proposed law has been challenged in the Supreme Court by Christian priests and rights groups saying it violates the fundamental right of a person to choose their religion. The cases are pending.

The Sinhalese are the majority community in the country and are mainly Buddhists.

But the JHU, too, has an axe to grind with the ruling United People's Freedom Alliance (UPFA).

On Jun. 8 UPFA legislators kicked, shoved and pushed JHU monk-MPs during a fracas in Parliament in a dispute over a new JHU parliamentarian taking his oath of office before the House Speaker. Opposition MPs reacted and scuffles broke out.

The monks, however, stayed out the melee despite the provocation that saw two JHU MPs hurt badly.

''While we have many achievements, our biggest success has been to show the people how selfish, cruel and aggressive our parliamentarians are,'' Sobitha told IPS. Sobitha is also the head monk of a Buddhist temple in the South.

Ironically, the popularity of JHU has increased ever since the attack on the Buddhist monk-MPs in Parliament.

Sobitha said it was mainly due to the rowdy scenes shown by a private television station, where people saw the monk-MPs being beaten up by UPFA parliamentarians.

The Buddhist monk party won nine seats in last April's election that brought President Chandrika Kumaratunga's shaky minority UPFA government to power.

The government in a bid to woo the monks to their side, in Parliament, has also finalised its own bill on the conversion issue.

But both pieces of proposed legislation are similar and impose a blanket prohibition on all conversions from one religion to another, analysts said.

Although it doesn't specifically mention Christians it is apparent that it is directed against conversions to Christianity, wrote R.M.B. Senanayake, a regular commentator on political and economic affairs, in a Jul 21 newspaper article

One of the clauses of the bill says that no person shall convert or attempt to convert another person to another religion, and no person shall illegally provide assistance or encouragement towards the religion change.

Senanayake said this creates a new criminal offence - the offence of converting a person from one religion to another. Offenders will be liable to a jail term of five years and a fine.

He argued that political freedom involves freedom of expression as well as the right to assemble freely and likewise similar freedom is required in the sphere of religion.

If the bill becomes law, Sri Lanka will break with several international conventions, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

The ICCPR stipulates that no one should be subject to coercion, which would impair his freedom to have or adopt a religion of his own choice. The proposed legislation itself could be seen as a form of coercion.

Buddhist Affairs Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake however rejected the allegations saying that the bill not only applies to Buddhists but also to all Sri Lankans of different faiths.

''There is no problem if a person changes his religion on his own free will. What is to be made an offence is the use of force through unethical means,'' he said in a statement last week.

Wickremanayake, a former prime minister and a hardline Buddhist in the cabinet also denied charges that he is trying to wage a religious war.

''Whether one is a Buddhist, Catholic, Hindu or Muslim the bill makes it an offence to force anyone to change his or her religion,'' the minister reiterated.

While the JHU will have a hard time getting this legislation through Parliament - due to concerns over fundamental rights - the debate, however, over the entry of monks into politics still goes on in the country.

Sarath Fernando, a leading civil rights activist who works with farmers and peasants, says while the monks had a very commendable reason to enter politics in creating a righteous society and making parliament a responsible institution, it hasn't worked that way however.

''They have also got into the hurly burly of politics and are reacting like other parliamentarians,'' he told IPS.

The JHU says they were forced into politics due to the inability of politicians to tackle the serious erosion of cultural values precipitated by a liberalised economy, rising corruption, sexual violence in society, and unethical conversions of Buddhists.

D. C. Ranatunga, a well-known writer on Buddhist affairs and culture, said Buddhist monks across the island were dismayed that politicians had not done anything about decaying morals and culture.

''They decided to come to Parliament to guide the country on the right track because parliamentarians have failed the people.''

In September 2003, more than 1,500 Buddhist monks gathered for an anti-conversion rally in Colombo. They accused Christians of offering financial enticements to the poor to encourage them to convert -- a claim which Christians vehemently denied.

Tensions increased in December 2003 when the well-known Buddhist monk Gangodawila Soma, a key figure in the anti- conversion campaign, died of a heart attack while travelling in Russia.

Christians were immediately accused of a conspiracy leading to his death, despite three autopsies showing that Soma died of natural causes.