Sri Lankan Buddhists welcome ruling against unethical conversions

COLOMBO (AFP) - Buddhist organisations in Sri Lanka have welcomed a Supreme Court decision to prevent proselytising or religious conversions and to deny legal status to two Christian organisations.

The National Joint Committee (NJC), which includes 40 Buddhist and nationalistic organisations, said last week's court ruling vindicated a campaign against "unethical conversions".

A three-judge bench held in two judgements that while the Sri Lankan constitution upheld a citizen's right to worship and practise his or her religion, it did not recognise a fundamental right to propagate a religion.

The court was hearing two petitions against two bills presented in parliament seeking legal status for two Christian organisations.

The All Ceylon Buddhist Women's Congress (ACWBC) challenged the bills.

"The ACWBC has scored a tremendous legal victory over fundamentalist cults trying to subvert poor Buddhists and Hindus by offering financial and other allurements," said Buddhist activist Senaka Weeraratne.

"We don't want to be misunderstood," said NJC secretary Piyasena Dissanayake. "We respect the right of an individual to change his or her religion, but it should not be as a result of financial or other material inducements."

He said the majority of Buddhists had no problems with people of other faiths, but they were aware that organisations abroad were funding "unethical conversions".

Buddhist organisations have been agitating against Christian groups and cults which they say are active in rural areas and offer people money, clothing and books in exchange for converting.

Two members of the ACWBC challenged a bill seeking to give legal status to a group called the "New Wine Harvest Ministries", described as a Norwegian Christian group, and another called the "Provincial of the Teaching Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of Saint Francis in Menzingen of Sri Lanka".

The petitioners claimed the latter group sought not only to propagate the Catholic religion, but also to "allure persons of other religions by providing material and other benefits".

Among these benefits were medical facilities, child education and providing care for infants, the elderly, orphans, the destitute and the sick.

The judges held that when there was no fundamental constitutional right to propagate a religion, if efforts were taken to convert another person to one's own religion, such conduct could hinder the very existence of the Buddha Sasana, or Buddhist order.

Sri Lanka is a secular state, but the constitution grants a foremost place to Buddhism which is practised by nearly 70 percent of the 18.66 million population. Hindus make up about 15 percent while Christians and Muslims are about 7.5 percent each.