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Mahinda Rajapakse Wins Sri Lankan Vote for President

by Sarah Page

Compass Direct

Sri Lankans elected a new president yesterday who faces the challenge of dealing with a Buddhist elite seeking greater control over religious minorities.

Mahinda Rajapakse, who won by a narrow margin, faces other challenges: He must renew stalled peace negotiations with the Tamil Tigers and pour more effort into tsunami recovery programs.

Christians, however, are mostly concerned about the pressure from Buddhists on the new president. Prior to the elections, Rajapakse formed an alliance with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU or National Heritage Party), a Buddhist party that has campaigned vigorously for the adoption of anti-conversion laws.

These laws would restrict freedom to convert from one religion to another, casting doubts on the motives of any religious group offering social or material assistance to the poor.

Rajapakse signed a deal with the JHU in mid September, promising a more aggressive approach to peace negotiations with the LTTE in return for electoral support.

Anti-conversion legislation was not – at least publicly – part of the deal.

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.”

Now Rajapakse must deal with leading Buddhist monks who want the constitution amended to make Buddhism the state religion. Failing this, anti-conversion legislation will no doubt be put back on the parliamentary agenda.

Christians say the constitutional amendment would have the same or greater effect as two different anti-conversion laws presented to parliament earlier this year. (See Compass Direct, “Buddhist Monks Press for Anti-Conversion Laws in Sri Lanka ,” September 23.)

Both Rajapakse and his opponent, Ranil Wickremesinghe, addressed religious freedom issues in their campaigns, but shied away from public commitment to anti-conversion legislation, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) reported.

An NCEASL staff member described an eerie silence in the streets of Colombo yesterday after votes were cast. Traffic was minimal, and many office workers had gone home, fearing post-election violence.

Buddhist extremists had already threatened to attack churches after the elections, according to NCEASL. The most concrete threat was directed at an Assembly of God church in Naalle, Gampaha district; church members were told to expect an attack last night.

Extremists have launched many violent attacks against Christians and churches in recent years, particularly after a leading Buddhist monk, Ven. Soma Thero, launched a campaign against conversions to Christianity in 2002.

A report issued by the U.S. State Department on November 8 took note of these acts of violence, saying Sri Lankans should honor their constitution – which protects the right of each citizen to practice the religion of his/her choice.

The report encouraged “interfaith efforts by religious leaders to promote a peaceful resolution of the conflict.”