The Catholic Church’s position with regard to Anti-conversion bill [the full title is: "Prohibition of forcible Conversions of Religions Bill" was aptly presented by the then President of Bishop’s Conference of Sri Lanka: "The Pope is among those who are concerned by the anti-conversion bill which will be debated tomorrow in Sri Lanka’s parliament, Monsignor Joseph Vianney Fernando, Bishop of Kandy and President of the Sri Lankan Bishops’ Conference, told Asia News. This law, if passed, would justify discrimination against not only religious minorities, but also against the Buddhist majority. He, along with 6 other Sri Lankan bishops, met with Benedict XVI during their ad limina visit in Rome last May 2nd. ‘Each one of us spoke to the Pontiff about this terrible law and he assured us his prayers and called on us to keep up our campaign in favour of religious freedom". [http://www.asianews.it/view.php?l=en&art=3219, date May 5, 2005]. This same bill is now revised and will be presented before the Parliament. What follows is a brief reflection on the proposed legislation.
1. Provisions of the Bill and its Incompatibility with International Standards.
In my understanding the Catholic Church’s position remain much the same. The attempt to penalize so called ‘unethical’ conversions is a violation of the rights guaranteed by the Sri Lanka Constitution art 10: "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have and adopt a religion or belief of his choice". The constitutional provision is more restrictive than the right guaranteed by the UN Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR, art. 18) which also guarantees the fight " ...to manifest his religion ... in worship, observance, practice and teaching". The latter wording amounts to a right to propagate one’s faith, which is not guaranteed by the Sri Lanka Constitution. It is our contention, that the proposed legislation will be even more detrimental to the international standards.
Article 9 of European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and Art. 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights are provisions comparable to ICCPR art. 18. There are interpretative guidelines to Art. 18 of the ICCPR and other international treaties pertaining to religious freedom. Some among them are: (1) The 1981 UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief [UNGA Res. 36/55 of 25 November 1981]: the General Comment No. 22 adopted by the Human Rights Committee of 1993 in Geneva [UN Doc.CCPR/C/21/Rev. 1 /Add.4 (1993)]; and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National, Ethnic, Religious or Linguistic Minorities [UNGA Res. 47/135 of 18 December 1992. Art. 2 para. 4 of the Declaration provides: "Persons belonging to minorities have the right to establish and maintain their own associations".] All these international documents and the case law under the ICCPR and ECHR point to the fact that any interference on the right of an individual freedom of conscience and religion by the state machinery will be rather suspect. The State has a very high burden to discharge before an infringement of this right is permissible under international law.
The proposed legislation is likely to pave the way for religious intolerance which is abhorred by the international community. One extreme form of religious intolerance found in Islamic countries must be abhorred. Another instance where such religious intolerance was reprimanded was in Greece. The European Court on Human Rights (Strasbourg) held that penal provisions imposed upon a Jehova Witness who was instrumental in converting a Christian of the Greek Orthodox Church to being a Jevoah witness was a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights [Kokkinakis v Greece (1992) 3 ECHR 348].
It might be well for the Sri Lanka government that at a time where Sri Lanka’s image before the international community is getting tarnished, the passage of this legislation would be further detrimental.
2. The Present Status of the Bill
When the Bill was proposed in 2005 as a private member’s bill, many Christian organizations jointly filed a petition challenging its constitutionally before the Supreme Court. The main obnoxious provision was the penal sanctions connected with unethical conversion. Clause 3 of the draft provided that a person found guilty of converting another by ‘force’, or ‘resorting to allurements’ or by ‘fraudulent means’ without notifying the District Secretary may be imprisoned for a period up to five years or fined up to 150,000 Rupees. The proviso to this provided enhanced penalty (7 years imprisonment and Rs. 500,000) if the person converted is a child or woman or one who is under authority as provided in the annexure.
The Supreme Court did not find that penal measures as stipulated in the draft law is unconstitutional. It is my contention, that the Bishops’ Conference consistently maintained that these penal measures are dangerous, since they will lead to vengeful prosecutions which will result in furthering religious disharmony.
However, the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka found that the following provisions of the proposed bill were violative of the Constitution of Sri Lanka. They are as follows:
(a) requiring the religious authorities to procure permission from the District Secretaries [clause 4 (a) of the draft];
(b) prosecutions by any person not- withstanding the provisions of the section 14 of the Criminal Procedure Code Act, No. 15 of 1979 [clause 5 of the draft]; and
(c) too wide and uncertain definitions of the terms ‘forcible’, ‘resorting to allurements’ and ‘fraudulent means’ [clause 8 of the draft].
Thereafter, the matter was placed before a Select Committee appointed by the Parliament. The lawyers representing the Christian Churches and the religious leaders have made their suggestions before the committee. After 4 years of deliberation, the Select Committee has presented the revised draft in conformity with the decision of the Supreme Court as at January 6, 2009. Very soon, the Parliament will go for the 3rd reading on the draft legislation which eventually will be written into the statute book of Sri Lanka.
The revised draft has made the following modifications:
(i) In pursuance of the ruling given in para (a), the revised draft has deleted clause 4 requiring the District Secretary to be notified of the conversion;
(ii) clause 5 is revised by requiring the written approval by the Attorney General for the purpose of prosecution; and
(iii) para (c) is met by defining force, allurements and resorting to fraudulent means in "relation to converting a person from one religion to another".
3. The Best Remedy for Unethical Conversions
It is my contention, in spite of the revision of the Bill in pursuance of the Supreme Court decision, this piece of legislation, if it were to be passed as law will not bode well for religious harmony in Sri Lanka. The Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka has proposed a practical solution to obviate the fear of unethical conversions and promote religious harmony: that was to institute a Inter-Religious Commission. Among other powers conferred upon this body, it would be empowered to settle disputes by means of negotiation, conciliation and other non-litigous procedures.
Fernando, "Pastoral Theology: New Vision" in (2003) 48 Asian Journal for Priests p. 33, proposes the best way to obviate or dysfunction the evil of unethical conversions. It is to put our own houses in order. In other words, the leaders, the clerics and lay leaders of the respective religions must seriously examine their consciences to see whether they take care of our own flock. The parents of a child in a family where there is mutual trust, car-giving-and receiving have nothing to fear of any defections. It is not any different with regard to religious institutions. The proponent of this Bill are comparable to parents, who fail in their duty to nurture their flock. Instead they want to chastise their neighbour to cover their guilt.
The established religions must stand for and uphold truth and justice at all levels: socio-economic, political and educational. The religious institutions as agents of truth and justice should not become corrupt in any way but be ready to challenge the corrupt practices that are rampant in all spheres of our society. In the face of the problem of consumerism, which enthrone hedonism and materialism, the religious institutions must be fearless upholders of spiritual values and the dignity of the human person. They must be true witnesses to the fact that material things are a means for an end and not an end in themselves. Consumer goods should be put at the service of community building. As regards decadent tourism, the religious institutions have to counteract it by promoting healthy tourism and conscientise the affected population regarding the necessities of life they are deprived of. Above all, they have to mobilise people’s force and people’s movement to act against decadent tourism.
The religious institutions have a stake in the pastoral response to the criminalisation of Sri Lanka politics. They should make people critically aware that political power which is meant for the service of the people is not used for selfish gains and criminal activities. They have to conscientise people about the fact that criminals are becoming political leaders and suggest means of preventing this disaster.
The religious institutions have a duty to conscientise their own people about human rights and make them sensitive to the violation of human rights and its serious consequences. Such sensitivity alone can bring about an attitude of respect for human life. Corruption, consumerism decadent tourism, criminalisation of politics and violence adversely affect the poor and have deepened their poverty and affected their religiosity. Pastoral response in this context on the part of the religions is to practise more and more the voluntary poverty taught by their respective religious leaders. Without yielding to the temptation of serving Mammon (money and wealth), it has to make a continuous option to serve God in the poor who are marginalized, oppressed and victimised by society. Imposed poverty is the subjugation of people by slaves of Mammon through forces such as multinational colonisation etc. In order to liberate the people from enslaving poverty, the religions have to take up the voluntary poverty which is liberation from Mammon, exteriorly manifested in renunciation. Furthermore, the leaders of the flock must be in constant touch with their flock. Frequent visitation of the flock by the religious leaders is a very useful tool to build up such rapport. Often, the members of the flock, in a situation of crisis have no one to turn to. It is at these times the so called ‘fundamentalists’ grab them into their fold.
Four cults have contributed not only to poverty of the people but also to enslaving face of popular religiosity. These cults are: superstition; ritualism; dogmatism and fundamentalism. These cultic aberrations legitimise the oppressive status quo and serve the Mammon in terms of commercialism. On the other hand, positive religiosity is prophetic and liberative. The challenge of the religions in Sri Lanka today is to harness the prophetic and liberative voices of people who cry and work with "LOVE". Give a voice to these voiceless innocent victims of injustice and be the catalyst for radical social change. If the leaders of the respective religions take care of their poor, they won’t be prey to the fundamentalists or anyone else. When we leave our hapless members on the margin, the vultures drag them away. So, let us be mindful of own responsibility towards our flock. Take good care of your own members rather than cursing the vultures.