AMBASSADOR GOONETILLEKE WELCOMES HEALTHY
DEBATE ON PROPOSED ANTI-CONVERSION LEGISLATION, SAYS IT IS AIMED
AT AVOIDING THE ISSUE SPIRALLING OUT OF CONTROL LEADING TO GREATER
Sri Lanka, as a vibrant democracy, has always
welcomed healthy debate on social issues and is deeply respectful
of the opinions of all those individuals and organizations both
at home and abroad that have expressed points of view with respect
to the proposed legislation seeking to prevent unethical conversions
in Sri Lanka. These views will have an important bearing on the
eventual shape of the legislation that will be placed before the
parliament, as well as influence the position of the lawmakers.
Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the US, Bernard
A.B. Goonetilleke made these observations last Tuesday (12 April
2005) when, along with senior officials from the Embassy he participated
in a ‘Roundtable with the Ambassador’ event organized
by the Institute on Religion and Public Policy and held on Capitol
Hill to discuss the proposed anti-conversion bill of Sri Lanka.
The monthly forum attended by Administration officials, Congressional
aides, NGOs, academics, the media and concerned members of the
public provides an opportunity for honest and open discussion
regarding the civil, political, religious and human rights environment
in countries represented by the Ambassadors.
The Ambassador in his opening remarks noted that
Sri Lanka being an island nation has throughout its history, interacted
with visitors from different regions of the world and from all
religious and ethnic persuasions. The people of Sri Lanka welcomed
American missionaries to the island as early as 1813. Among the
well known American missionaries and educators who served the
country at that time were Rev. Samuel Newell, Rev. Edward Warren
and Rev. Dr. Danniel Poor. Religious freedom is a deep-rooted
value cherished by all Sri Lankans.
Pointing out that the phenomenon of unethical
conversion was a real issue in Sri Lanka and particularly segments
of the poor said to be vulnerable to this, Ambassador Goonetilleke
said the rapid increase in conversions in recent times had been
noticeable. Even Catholic, Protestant and Hindu religious organisations
had been apprehensive of this practice as it created new social
tensions where none existed before, leading to local disturbances.
In more recent times, the issue had also become highly politicized.
All the Sri Lanka Government is trying to do is to address this
issue in a manner that avoids it from spiralling out of control,
leading to greater social unrest and religious disharmony. Such
challenges are not unique to Sri Lanka. Even in other countries,
governments and legislatures are often called upon to take preventive
action in the face of similar developments.
The Government of Sri Lanka has made clear that
the draft ‘Freedom of Religion Bill’ is neither directed
against any religion nor does it seek to promote a particular
religion. The Bill has not yet been gazetted. When introduced
in the Sri Lanka Parliament, any citizen or organization has the
freedom to challenge it in terms of Article 121(1) of the Constitution
by invoking the constitutional jurisdiction of the Supreme Court,
for a determination in terms of Article 123 of the Constitution
of Sri Lanka. The Ambassador noted that following petitions filed
by civil society, a previous Bill entitled, ‘Prohibition
of Forcible Conversion of Religion’, introduced as a private
member’s bill in Parliament was not proceeded with in the
Parliament of Sri Lanka in 2004, consequent to the decision of
the Supreme Court, where it was held that provisions of the Bill
were unconstitutional. In drafting the Freedom of Religion Bill,
concerns expressed by the Supreme Court with regard to the previous
private member’s Bill have been taken into consideration
and addressed. It is still in draft form and amenable to change.
In the event, the present Bill is debated in Parliament, it will
be subject to a “conscience vote” enabling Members
of Parliament representing the Government as well as those in
the Opposition to vote according to their individual conscience
irrespective of their political affiliations. Recently the Prime
Minister has reconfirmed the desire of the Government to allow
Members of Parliament to vote according to their conscience.
At question time, the participants at the roundtable
while appreciating the candor with which the Ambassador had chosen
to take the issue head-on, expressed reservations about the path
Sri Lanka proposed to take on this issue and the possible ramifications
that might result from such action. There was concern that those
organisations likely to be affected, were not consulted and the
base broadened in the process of drafting the bill. It was felt
that this might have helped avoid at least some of the issues
that arise from it. Questions were raised as to whether there
were aspects in it that were inconsistent with Sri Lanka’s
international obligations and whether adopting it in its present
form could result in affecting the foreign assistance given to
Sri Lanka. Noting that a bulk of the tsunami aid that came to
Sri Lanka was from faith-based groups, it was also observed that
if passed, even with adjustments, this law would severely curtail
the potential aid available from church groups belonging to the
different denominations and could have a “chilling effect”
on NGOs operating in Sri Lanka, across all developmental sectors.
It was also felt that the tension that had been caused by this
issue had led to a spate of attacks on churches in recent times
and there was fear that this might escalate.
Responding to these issues raised, Ambassador
Goonetilleke observed that what is available at present is a draft
bill. This is bound to be subject to further change as it moves
through the law making process, including the consideration of
its constitutionality by the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka prior
to being debated in Parliament.
Religious freedom is enshrined in the Constitution
of Sri Lanka and bills inconsistent with the Constitution will
not be approved by the Parliament and the Constitutional procedures
applicable in Sri Lanka, provide sufficient and effective safeguards
against possible abuse of the provisions of the draft Bill. These
will be done consistent with Sri Lanka’s international obligations.
He said the spate of attacks on churches in the early part of
2004 had clearly preceded the attempt to legislate on this issue.
They were acts by a small politically motivated radical group.
The President took a personal interest in putting an end to the
wave of incidents that were occurring at the time. Following the
arrest of members of the group, while traveling to attack a church
in Kebitigollawa 180 KM from Cololmbo, the pattern of organized
attacks has clearly been stemmed, although a number of sporadic
incidents took place subsequently.
Ambassador Goonetilleke also noted that the
need to enact legislation concerning unethical conversions had
arisen well before the tsunami struck Sri Lanka in late December
2004. There was no connection between the proposed anti-conversion
legislation and the increase of faith based social service NGOs
following the tsunami. Their work was deeply appreciated by all
Sri Lankans and there was no reason to believe that work of faith
based groups engaged in such development work would be affected
in any way due to the proposed bill. They may have fears, but
they cannot be justified on an objective basis.
Embassy of Sri Lanka
15 April 2005