Sri Lanka: Fears churches may be hit by legislation on cults

According to Barnabas Aid, the Religious Affairs Ministry in Sri Lanka has announced that it intends to introduce legislation enabling the authorities to take action against religious groups that are deemed cults in a move that threatens some of the country's churches.

The group says that Sri Lanka's Ministry Secretary M.K.B. Dissanayake said that a dialogue with the relevant stakeholders had been initiated regarding the introduction of such a law. It would be designed to prevent anyone from "distorting the original teachings" of the country's four main religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.

Barnabas Aid's coordinator for South Asia said that this was "a very dangerous proposal as it will affect all Evangelical churches in the country". Evangelical churches are not recognised by the Religious Affairs Ministry and are thus liable to be labeled as "cults" by those who do not understand the Christian faith and want to prevent activity they deem undesirable or threatening.

This proposed legislation is the latest threat to the Church in Sri Lanka, which has been facing increasing opposition. Last month, ten anti-Christian incidents were recorded in the country. These mostly involved the harassment of churches by Buddhist extremists in what may be a concerted campaign.

On 24 March, Galaboda Aththe Gnanasarathera of hardline Buddhist group the Bodu Bala Sena said that the country should be ready to rally against what he described as Christian and Muslim extremist groups operating in the country. Buddhists are particularly hostile to Christian evangelism and campaign for laws to control religious conversion.

"In this context of animosity towards Christian groups, Buddhists would undoubtedly use the proposed new religious legislation to put pressure on the authorities to target vulnerable churches. Buddhism is already afforded the 'foremost place' by the government," said Barnabas Aid spokesperson.

"The new law being considered in Sri Lanka is reminiscent of the efforts of governments in Communist and former Communist countries to restrict religious freedom, especially Christianity.

"In China, for example, the constitution grants freedom of religious belief but limits protections for religious practice to 'normal religious activities'. The government determines what is 'normal'.

"Only religious groups that belong to one of the five state-sanctioned 'patriotic religious associations' - Buddhist, Taoist, Muslim, Roman Catholic and Protestant - can register with the government and legally meet for worship. These organisations are subject to close state control."

Barnabas Aid goes on to say that some religious groups, including certain Christian ones, are banned, and these are labeled under Chinese law as 'evil cults'. Individuals involved in such groups have been imprisoned or sentenced to 're-education through labour' on charges such as 'distributing evil cult materials' or 'using a heretical organisation to subvert the law'.

The spokesperson concluded, "Many of the countries that impose restrictive rules on religious matters have signed up to international treaties that uphold the right to freedom of religion and belief, and they should be held accountable to these commitments.

"It is never the role of the state to play theological watchdog, determining the validity of its citizens' beliefs. The proposed legislation in Sri Lanka must be resisted and the rights of its citizens honoured."