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As seen in India , some leaders in Sri Lanka are also pushing for anti-conversion measures to curb the spread of Christianity.

Buddhist Monks Press for Anti-Conversion Laws in Sri Lanka

Compass Direct

by Sarah Page

DUBLIN , September 23 (Compass) – More than 1,000 Buddhist monks staged a protest in Sri Lanka on September 20, asking that anti-conversion legislation be put back on the parliamentary agenda before presidential elections scheduled for November 17.

Other pressing issues, including tsunami relief efforts and ongoing peace negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), meant the legislation had been put on hold.

Two anti-conversion bills – one proposed by Minister of Buddhist Affairs Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, and the other by the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU or National Heritage Party) – were presented to parliament earlier this year.

The draft Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion, proposed by the JHU, called for prison sentences of up to five years and/or a stiff fine for anyone found guilty of converting others “by force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.”

It also encouraged members of the public to report cases of suspected forced conversion.

Wickremanayake’s Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom proposed similar terms and was approved in principle by the Cabinet in 2004.

Monks from the JHU played a key role in Tuesday’s protest march and rally in Colombo , the nation’s capital. The JHU, however, has now dropped its demands for presidential candidate Mahinda Rajapakse, currently prime minister of Sri Lanka , to push the anti-conversion agenda forward before the elections.

The JHU signed a deal with Rajapakse last week promising electoral support in return for a more aggressive approach to negotiations with the LTTE, a rebel group that has fought for an independent Tamil homeland since 1983.

Anti-conversion laws were not – at least publicly – part of the election deal signed by the prime minister.

JHU leader Athuraliye Rathna Thero, however, told the daily Colombo Page on September 20 that his party had “decided to withdraw its [anti-conversion bill], as the threat of conversion to other religions will not exist when Prime Minister Rajapakse becomes president.”

Rajapakse traveled to Kandy , the Buddhist capital of Sri Lanka , to sign the deal outside the Temple of the Tooth, an important religious landmark. He knelt down before JHU chief monk Ellawala Medananda to formally accept his copy of the agreement, before entering the temple with Medananda to observe Buddhist religious rites.

According to local media reports, the 12-point agreement included a revision of the government’s ceasefire agreement with the LTTE; a rejection of plans to give limited autonomy to the rebels; and an end to the “Joint Mechanism” agreement that allowed joint administration of tsunami aid in LTTE-controlled areas.

Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) is now in danger of splitting over the deal. President Chandrika Kumaratunga of the SLFP had hoped to reach a permanent peace agreement with the rebels during her term as president; however she has already served two terms and is not eligible for a third.

Religious Intolerance

In July, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed concern about growing religious intolerance in Sri Lanka . The commission claimed the JHU bill would “fall short of international standards with regard to freedom of thought, conscience and religion or belief.”

The commission urged the Sri Lankan government to refrain from passing laws that were “inconsistent with international standards.”

In response, the JHU sent a letter to U.S. Ambassador Jeffry Lunstead in early August, condemning the United States ’ stand on the anti-conversion bill.

“We are deeply concerned about the recent statement made by your Deputy Secretary of State, Ms. Christina Rocca, with regard to the two anti-conversion bills presented to the parliament of Sri Lanka ,” the letter read in part. “We believe your government’s opinion [about the law] is baseless as there would be no barrier to any individual to change his/her religion [of] their own will after these bills are passed. We are only prohibiting unethical conversions, which we sincerely believe is a punishable offense.”

Documented evidence suggests otherwise. The Buddhist campaign against religious conversions began in earnest in 2003. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka recorded over 170 attacks on Christian individuals or institutions between January 2003 and January 2005. In many of these incidents, Buddhist monks were present and played a leading role.

The violence has continued this year. Most recently, a Four Square Gospel church in Horana, Kalutara district, was ordered to close after a Buddhist mob threatened worshipers at Sunday services on July 31 and August 7. The police accepted that the church had a constitutional right to meet together but ordered the meetings to stop, as they had supposedly provoked a “disturbance of the peace.”

Church members were ordered not to meet for worship in any other location.

In July, a Roman Catholic church in Patunagama was attacked during the night and set on fire. A second Catholic church in Pulasthigama was set alight in broad daylight on July 16. Unidentified extremists also planted explosives outside the Christian Family Church in Kayankerny, Batticaloa district, in the early hours of July 7, causing severe damage to the newly-built church.