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Compass Direct (04/26/06) – Sri Lanka ’s Parliament has appointed a 19-member committee to review a bill that would outlaw “forcible” conversion, before it is presented for a final vote.

The April 5 move to revive stalled anti-conversion legislation came as sporadic attacks on churches continued, and the country spiraled ever closer to a renewal of civil war between government forces and separatists in the north.

The Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya, (JHU or National Heritage Party), first introduced its draft Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion to Parliament in July 2004 as an attempt to halt conversions from Buddhism to Christianity. The bill 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.

Minority groups challenged the constitutionality of the bill, and the Supreme Court ruled in August 2005 that it was incompatible with Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of thought, conscience and religion to every citizen.

An amended draft was tentatively approved in May 2005, but presidential elections in November 2005 and a breakdown in peace negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) put a halt to passage of the legislation.

The LTTE has fought for two decades for an independent homeland in the north; more than 60,000 soldiers and civilians have lost their lives in the conflict.

A peace treaty was signed in 2002, but violent clashes in recent weeks have sparked fears of a slide into civil war. The port town of Tincomalee in northeastern Sri Lanka was hardest hit, with hundreds of residents taking shelter in schools and churches after a series of bombings left 30 dead, according to a BBC report on April 19.

A suspected suicide bombing inside Sri Lanka ’s main military headquarters yesterday (April 25) critically wounded army chief Sarath Fonseka and killed five of his bodyguards, Agence France-Presse reported. In retaliation, Sri Lankan army planes today bombed LTTE territory in the north.

Against this backdrop, attacks on churches have continued, with the most recent reported last Sunday (April 23).

Violent Buddhist Mob

A Buddhist monk led a 100-strong mob to attack a Methodist church in Piliyandala, southeast of Colombo , during Sunday’s worship service.

Three police officers were present during the attack. Church members had called for protection after two protest rallies were held outside the church on Palm Sunday (April 9) and Easter Sunday (April 16), one source told Compass.

The police could not control the mob, however, and asked the minister to stop the service and allow people to go home. By that stage, the mob had smashed the windshields of several vehicles and toppled motorbikes parked outside the church.

Church staff lodged an official complaint on Monday.

During a court hearing on Tuesday (April 25), a 500-strong Buddhist crowd called for a ban on services. The judge, however, granted freedom for the church to continue worshiping and issued a court order for the Buddhists not to disturb future services. The Buddhist monk leading the attack was charged but released on bail until May 8, when a second hearing is scheduled.

A mob also attacked the home of an Assembly of God pastor in Alpitiya, Galle district, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka , on March 24. The pastor had been receiving death threats for some time. (See Compass Direct, “Two Churches Attacked in Sri Lanka ,” January 26.)

On March 19, excrement and burnt oil were thrown at the house of neighbors who were sympathetic to the pastor and his family. On March 22, another neighboring family who had provided drinking water to the pastor found that their well had been poisoned.

Complaints have been lodged with the police regarding these incidents.

A spokesman from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka said churches were still being attacked or threatened almost weekly, although the pressure was not as “intense” as it was last year.

Ambiguous Promises

Christians – fearing further violence if anti-conversion legislation is passed – have called on President Mahinda Rajapakse to honor promises he made in a post-election speech in November 2005: “We shall adopt measures to provide all citizens religious freedom and freedom of conscience, including the right to embrace any religion or faith.”

The president’s true stance on religious freedom is, however, unclear.

The JHU signed a deal with Rajapakse in September 2005, promising electoral support in return for a more aggressive approach to negotiations with the LTTE.

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

JHU leader Athuraliye Rathna Thero, however, told the daily Colombo Page on September 20 that “the threat of conversion to other religions will not exist when Rajapakse becomes president.”