Fears of religious suppression unfounded - Buddhist organisations

Fears that the proposed anti-conversion legislation will pave the way for the suppression of minority are completely unfounded, a group of Buddhist organisations said recently.

They were responding to some observations on the legislation made by the Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council.

The statement was signed by representatives from the Lanka Buddha Sanrakshana Sabhawa, All Ceylon Women's Buddhist Congress, National Council of Buddhist Women, Sadaham Charika, Centre for Buddhist Action, International Association of Buddhist Women, Buddhist Times and the Thawalama Development Foundation.

The excerpts from the Buddhist organisations' news release:"

The Catholic Bishops Conference and the National Christian Council have issued a Statement disapproving the enactment of a bill titled "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Act published in the Gazette on 28th May 2004 and presented by Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhita Thera MP, as a Private Member's Bill, and another suggested draft approved by the Cabinet.

"We regret to note that the authors of this statement have completely misdirected themselves on the objectives of the said drafts and the aims of the laws and other international covenants dealing with the freedom of thought, conscience and religion, and have thereby raised issues which grossly distort the true position relating to this subject and attempted to create a wrong impression in the minds of the public about these bills.

We are constrained to respond to the above statement through a rational analysis of the issues raised by the Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council in relation to existing laws and covenants.

The said drafts basically target for punishment those who place fetters on the religious freedom of others but do not restrict the rightful freedom of those who practise or adopt a religion of their free choice, a feature of the drafts that the Bishops and Christian Council have conveniently overlooked.

The draft presented as a Private Member's Bill however carries a provision that a person who converts his religion must report such change to the Divisional secretary.

One may be justified in interpreting that this provision amounts to a fetter placed on the freedom of one wishing to adopt a religion of his choice, but this one requirement does not make the entire draft an infringement on one's religious freedom.

"The Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council in their wisdom declare that these drafts contravene accepted prevailing international conventions and norms. On the contrary the provisions of the drafts seek to uphold the relevant provisions in international conventions.

We draw their attention to article 18(2) of the International covenant on Civil and Political Rights which reads, "No one shall be subjected to coercion which would impair his freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice".

Similar provisions are found in other international and regional conventions. Accordingly, as envisaged in these covenants, the drafts seek to prevent a person having to adopt a religion by coercion or other forms of improper conduct.

Article 18 (1) of said covenant on Civil and Political Rights and many other international and regional covenants recognize the need to subject the freedom to manifest ones religion or belief to limitations prescribed by law as are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. It is pertinent to note that in our own Constitution too similar provision can be found in Article 15(7) which subjects the freedom to manifest ones religion enshrined in Article 14(1)(e) and other Articles, to such restriction as may be prescribed by law in the interest of national security, public order and the protection of public health or morality or for the purpose of securing the due recognition and the respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society.

It is a matter of regret that the two learned organizations have failed to recognize the above provisions as a sound basis for such a law, instead of erroneously asserting that the drafts contravene the fundamental rights enshrined in our Constitution as well as accepted prevailing international conventions and norms. This assertion appears to be a clear attempt to misdirect the public.

In this regard it is also pertinens to bring to the attention of the catholic Bishops and the Christian Council, the following observations made by the well-known European Court of Human Rights in the case of Kokinakis vs Greece (1993) with regard to conversions of persons by improper means.

"First of all, a distinction has to be made between bearing Christian witness and improper proselytism. The former corresponds to true evangelism, which a report drawn up in 1956 under the auspices of the World Council of Churches describes as an essential mission and a responsibility of every Christian and every Church.

The latter represents a corruption or a deformation of it. It may according to the same report, take the form of activities offering material or social advantages with a view to gaining new members for a Church or exerting improper pressure on people in distress or in need; it may even entail the use of violence or brainwashing; more generally, it is not compatible with respect for the freedom of thought, conscience and religion of others".

The proposed drafts seek to prohibit use of force, fraud and allurement to change a person's religion. The Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council states, "we affirm our commitment to protecting the individual's freedom to have or adopt any religion or belief of his or her free choice. No fetter should be placed in the path of the exercise of that freedom by legislative or other means".

Surely the fetter in the drafts is on the use of such force, fraud or allurement on another so as to compel or entice him to change his religion, which can under no circumstances be interpreted as exercising his free choice to adopt a religion, and if the Bishops' and Christian Council's commitment to protect the said freedom are genuine, they should support the introduction of legislation to curb the use of force, fraud or allurement to change another's religion.

It needs to be reminded that as far as Buddhist missionaries are concerned no one can or has ever pointed a finger at them to say they are resorting to force, fraud or allurement in teaching the Dhamma in other countries.

On the contrary their approach has been exemplary and their hosts appreciate their work and have accepted them with open arms. They are not depending on the charity of any other religious organization for the strict exercise of their legitimate rights under the various international human rights covenants.

Therefore to draw a parallel between Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka engaging in improper conversions and the Buddhist missionaries aborad who should be an example to the former, is mischievous and uncalled for.

If the Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council are committed to support the maintenance of a pluralistic society and to uphold the essential characteristics of a modern democratic society, they as the leading Christian groups have a duty to ensure that true evangelism is not mixed up with improper proselytism which invariably will destroy the very pluralism that they are advocating.

We also draw the attention of the Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council to a statement made by the Catholic Bishops Conference in December 2003 and published in a number of newspapers (including the Daily News of 19.12.03).

While they condemn the violence against Christian places of worship, parts of their statement which are relevant state; "We the Bishops of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka are deeply conscious of the social unrest alleged to be caused by certain activities of the Fundamentalist Christian Sects, particularly by the more radical elements.

Some of their reported activities have begun to endanger the peaceful co-existence among different sectors of the Sri Lankan society.

Therefore we believe that it is opportune to state as clearly as possible the position of the Catholic Church vis-a-vis these sects. It must be stated that the Catholic Church is not associated in any way with any of these sects.

We do not support any of the measures such as material enticements or undue pressures that are alleged to be made by these groups in order to carry out so-called unethical conversions. They pursue mostly our Catholics, often with their own interpretations of the Bible."

Having made the above observations in December 2003, the position taken by the catholic Bishops now to disapprove of legislation which will curb the activities of these Fundamentalist sects, which they themselves do not approve of, is a serious contradiction of their previous position.

The Catholic Bishops and the Christian Council have also expressed fears that the proposed legislation will pave the way for the oppression of minority religions. These fears are completely unfounded and not supported by past experiences.

On the contrary we stress that for thousands of years religious harmony has been maintained in this country by the majority Buddhists, even at the height of the violent oppression of Buddhists by Christian missionaries.

Recently a handful of Buddhists are alleged to have reacted to the unchecked activities of the Christian Fundamentalists under grave provocation and if this scenario is allowed to continue without the introduction of the proposed legislation, then we are likely to see a complete breakdown of religious harmony and the legitimate rights of the minority religions in this country jeopardised."