The new law making it harder for people in Burma to switch religions

Laws restricting religious conversion and other practices are drawing fire from religious freedom experts, who say the measures hamper societal harmony.

On Friday, Burma's joint parliament approved a religious conversion bill, which the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said blocks individual choices.

"Under the religious conversion bill, individuals choosing to adopt another faith confront special bureaucratic hurdles — including requiring applicants to provide extensive and intrusive personal information, to receive 'approval,' thereby creating a system that effectively would discourage and reject conversions," the independent federal commission said in a statement.

USCIRF chairman Robert P. George added, "This measure is discriminatory, period. It is gravely wrong for the government to presume to dictate whether an individual can change their religion or belief. We call on (Burmese) President Thein Sein immediately to reject this ill-conceived measure."

Human Rights Watch, a global non-governmental organization, decried both the religious conversion bill and an anti-polygamy statute critics say is designed to hamper Burma's Muslim minority.

"By passing these two draft laws, Parliament has ignored basic human rights and risks inflaming Burma’s tense intercommunal relations, threatening an already fragile transition ahead of landmark elections," Phil Robertson, the group's deputy Asia director, said.

Thailand's Chiang Rai Times newspaper said the Burmese bills were "proposed by radical monks who have risen to prominence in recent years, claiming that the majority Buddhist religion is under threat."

Tensions between Burma's Buddhist majority and minority religions have been simmering for decades. A Christian sect, the Karens, noted the 65th anniversary of the martyrdom of key leaders, Burma News International reported this month. Earlier this year, the Deseret News reported on Rohingya Muslims, another minority in Burma, who fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere, despite uncertain prospects as refugees.

Tension over religious conversion has surfaced in other nearby countries. In the Himalayan nation of Nepal, which is drafting a new constitution, one provision seeks to block religious conversions, reports indicate.

"The drafted constitution includes a clause that states, 'No one shall behave, act or undertake activities that breach public order or break public peace/peace in the community; and no one shall attempt to change or convert someone from one religion to another, or disturb/jeopardise the religion of others, and such acts/activities shall be punishable by law,'" reported.

Christians comprise less than 2 percent of Nepal's population, which is majority Hindu. "Christianity is not recognized as a religion here (in Nepal) unlike Hinduism, Buddhism or Islam," the Rev. Silas Bogati, Roman Catholic vicar general in Nepal, told the Catholic News Service. "Reiterating the secular character in the constitution is crucial to upholding complete religious freedom."

According to Christian Solidarity Worldwide chief executive Mervyn Thomas, Nepal is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his or her choice." Thomas made his statement to the British publication Christian Today.

In neighboring India, anti-conversion bills have also surfaced, but so far have not progressed very far. In April, India's Ministry of Law and Justice said the federal government did not have the authority to enact a national "anti-conversion" law, the Catholic website reported.

"Religious conversions have become a sensitive subject in India after the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in Delhi a year ago," the report stated. "Nationalist Hindu groups have been clamoring for a national law banning conversions, claiming that Christians and Muslims convert hundreds of poor people every year, attracting converts with promises of social services."

According to a February 2015 statement from USCIRF, "Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have assaulted these (minority religious) communities and forced community members to convert."