For press freedom by Sunanda Deshapriya
(7th January DM)
The Sri Lankan ambassador to the United States, Jaliya Wickramasuriya, received a letter recently, signed by 15 US Congressmen, requesting that Sri Lanka shelve the proposed legislation outlawing religious conversion.
The Bill was approved in January, and a final vote in Sri Lanka’s parliament is expected this month.
“We believe this proposed legislation will harm, not protect, the freedom of religion of the Sri Lankan people,” wrote the signatories, who represent both political parties. “This Anti-Conversion Bill goes overboard and targets all religious conversions, not just unethical conversions.”
The proposed bill calls for fines up to Rs. 500,000 ($4,425) and up to seven years in prison for trying to convert a Sri Lankan citizen from one religion to another by using “force, fraud or allurement.”
The harshest punishments are reserved for those convicted of converting women or children. “The right to worship as dictated by one’s conscience is a basic fundamental human right, and one that is the foundation of any truly free society,” said Rep. Akin, who organized the letter.
The Sri Lankan ambassador received an almost identical letter, signed by 20 human rights activists representing Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Baha’i, and interfaith organizations, last week. Angela Wu, representing the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, signed that letter. Four members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) also signed the letter.
The Anti Conversion Bill was first introduced by the Buddhist Nationalist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) or National Heritage Party, in 2004.
At that time it failed, and Sri Lankan officials assured religious and human rights groups that it would not be revived. The previous Sri Lankan Ambassador to the United States last February told a public forum in Washington, DC that the Anti-Conversion Bill was dead, and would never “see the light of day.”
The JHU, which is led by Buddhist monks, is a small part of the government’s ruling coalition in parliament. The government is also said to be opposing the Bill, but it was expected to pass sometime in February.
The Bill also “criminalises charitable acts, humanitarian aid and peaceful religious dialogue,” the signers allege.
On December 26, 2004 an earthquake hit South Asia creating a deadly tsunami, killing more than 200,000 persons, almost 35,000 in Sri Lanka alone.
In addition, more than 500,000 Sri Lankans were made homeless in a flash. Millions of dollars in foreign aid, much of it collected by Christian and other religious charities in the United States and Europe, poured into Sri Lanka.
Democrats who signed the letter include: James McGovern, Massachusetts; Rush Holt, New Jersey; Michael McMahon, New York; Bart Gordon, Tennessee; and Maurice Hinchey, New York. It was also signed by Republicans Todd Akin, Missouri; Trent Franks, Arizona; Bob Inglis, South Carolina; Frank Wolf, Virginia; Scott Garrett, New Jersey; Joseph Pitts, Pennsylvania; Paul Broun, Georgia, Thaddeus McCotter, Michigan; John McHugh, New York; and Robert Aderholt, Alabama.
The Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is a nonpartisan, interfaith, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions. (Agencies)