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Christians, Buddhists share concerns over anti-conversion bill

03/09/09 ANURADHAPURA, Sri Lanka (UCAN) — Christian and Buddhist leaders have expressed concern over a pending anti-conversion bill, with some saying it would hamper Christians’ social service work among the mostly Buddhist population.

The Prohibition of Forcible Conversion Bill is due to be debated and voted on in parliament soon.

Local media reported that according to the bill, the offer of a gift, cash or any other incentive to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years imprisonment and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (about US$4,400).

Presently, a parliament consultative committee is examining the bill to see if it infringes on religious activities and if it violates the country’s constitution.

Bishop Norbert Andradi of Anuradhapura, in northern Sri Lanka, called a meeting on March 4 to discuss the bill. Priests, members of Anuradhapura diocese’s Laity Commission, lay leaders from six Buddhist movements, NGO representatives and government officials attended the meeting held at the Assistant Government Agent’s (AGA) office in Anuradhapura, a city sacred to Buddhists.

The AGA is the government representative at the district level.

Pastor Tulin Colombage from the Eppawela Methodist Church told UCA News after the meeting, “We never ask (about) religion when we help a beggar,” but now helping someone from another religion could be a punishable offence, he said. “We vehemently oppose this bill because we cannot practice charity without being misunderstood or misinterpreted.”

Bishop Andradi agreed. “Charity and solidarity form essential part of Christianity and one of our main precepts is to love our neighbor as ourselves,” he said during the meeting.

Buddhist representatives at the gathering said they appreciated Church’s charity work and opposed the bill. Koholanwala Karunapala, a representative of the Rajarata Buddhist association said the country is already burdened with conflicts between the majority Sinhalese and minority Tamil groups. So “why should we bring in another religious issue to add fuel to fire?” he asked. “What we need today is cooperation and collaboration on the part of all races and religions.”

He noted that it was the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, formed by some Buddhist monks, that introduced the bill in parliament. “We oppose the bill,” he stressed.

The JHU monks were invited to the meeting but did not attend.

Bishop Andradi, who is also secretary general of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, said, “I have very close ties with the Buddhist clergy here.”

Anula Indrani, who represented the AGA, noted the constitution states that all people have the liberty to practice their religions. She added that the constitution has never stipulated that people have to stick to the religion that they were born into.

The anti-conversion bill was first presented in parliament in 2005 and Catholic Church leaders and evangelical pastors have been campaigning against it. They charge that it is against the country’s constitution that guarantees religious freedom for minorities.

Anuradhapura is considered the cradle of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Close to 70 percent of Sri Lankans today are Buddhists, but the figure in Anuradhapura and the surrounding farming areas is 90 percent. About 10,000 Catholics live among the 1.1 million people of Anuradhapura diocese, which is made up mostly of agricultural land and thousands of remote villages.