Buddhist monks oppose anti-conversion laws

Several Buddhist leaders expressed their opposition to anti-conversion laws. The Venerable Thibbotuwawe Sri Sumangala Mahanayake Thero, head of the Malwatte chapter of the Siamese sect of Buddhist monks, told Ravaya weekly that “it was not possible to stop Buddhists from converting to other religions through legislation.” Instead, he emphasised it would be better to improve the standards of living of poor Buddhists.

The Venerable Madampagama Assaji Thero, co-chair of the Inter-religious Peace Foundation, also opposes such laws. “Buddhism promotes and encourages religious freedom,” Assaji said. “People should be free not only to practice their religion but to change it based on their personal study and reflection.”

Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court will start today an inquiry into the constitutionality of the bill. More than 20 leading religious figures signed a petition asking the highest court to settle the matter, among them Msgr. Frank Marcus Fernando, Catholic bishop of Chilaw, Kandiah Neelakandan, president of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress, and Maulana Rilwan Rahim, of the Muslim Theological Council.

In the last few days, some 3,000 Catholics have demonstrated in the streets of Chilaw against the bill. Christians fear the new law might lead to abuses and curtail religious freedom.

An initial anti-conversion bill was tabled in parliament by a member for the Jathika Hela Urumaya Party. The government followed suit with its own bill. Proposed laws require would-be converts and the people who “assisted” them in converting inform local government officials. Failure to do so would be punishable with a jail sentence of up to 5 years and a fine of 150,000 rupees (about US$ 1,500)

Buddhist backers of the bill claim that it is only designed to “keep in check the activities of Christian fundamentalists” whom they accuse of undermining the “secular religious harmony of the country”.

Of Sri Lanka’s 19 million people, 69% are Buddhist, 15% Hindu, 8% Muslim, and 7.5% Christian.