Ensure freedom of religion without deceit

by Janaka Perera, The Nation (Sri Lanka), July 15, 2012

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- “The accepted theory of freedom of religion is the freedom to believe in any particular religion of one’s own choice, changing one’s religion should be a personal decision taken independent of any coercion, influence, terror, deceit or secrecy.”

The above is an excerpt from Chapter 6 (page 89) of the report of the Commission that the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress appointed to inquire and report on the unethical conversions of Buddhists to other religions.  The English edition of the 385-page report was ceremonially launched under the patronage of World Federation of Buddhists Vice President Dr. Ananda W.P. Guruge at the ACBC Hall, Colombo on July 2.

The commission has recommended that the Bill to prevent unethical conversions grafted after prolonged discussions between Buddhist and Hindu organizations be forthwith placed before parliament as a government bill instead of reintroducing the private member’s bill that lapsed at the end of the last parliamentary sessions.

The commission notes that the Christian religious community was conspicuous in its united and outright opposition to the Bill to prohibit religious conversions by unethical means.  The commission wants Buddhist organizations meet this challenge at national and regional levels by bringing pressure upon their respective MPs to get the Bill passed in parliament.

“To make this legislation meaningful, the State shall give assurance to the Buddhist public to undertake the issue and directives and regulations needed to implement it. If the government hesitates to take such steps, a sustained pressure shall be brought on it at a national level unabated.  The All Ceylon Buddhist Congress should give leadership to this movement mustering the active participation of all other Buddhist organizations in the country.”

The commission has also called for banning non-governmental organizations from implementing any projects that directly or indirectly provide facilities to lure people into unethical conversions. This includes incorporating strict conditions to ensure the transparency of the activities of foreign companies who arrive in Sri Lanka on investment agreements with the Board of Investment.

Among the other recommendations is the need for enforcing stricter laws when issuing visas to foreigners visiting Sri Lanka. The commission wants the visas issued to those arrived in this country under the pretext of engaging in social service projects, but are found engaged in missionary activities to be cancelled.

The commission observes the main reason for the success of unethical conversions has been the ability to entice poverty-stricken people by providing them with financial and material assistance. It has been revealed that a very high percentage of such funding is provided by foreign sources. The Buddhist community and Buddhist organizations do not possess such economic resources to counter this threat, states the report.  It cites an extract from the Sri Lanka Telecom Directory 2008, showing 261 different Christian churches and organizations in the Western Province alone.

The report also warns that unethical conversion to other religions would lead to conflict situations, which are then reported by some local newspapers particularly in the English media “casting malicious, wrathful, partisan false aspersions against Buddhists.”

According to the commissioners “The reporting of these falsified news are intended for dissemination by the foreign media, which highlight these as atrocities committed against minor religious groups”. 

Speaking at the launching ceremony Ven Prof Induragarey Dhammarathana, Sanskrit Studies Faculty, Kelaniya University said Sri Lanka’s Buddhist population had dropped to 61 percent according to the latest census whereas when he was young the percentage was 79 percent.  He did not rule out the possibility that the next census would show the percentage coming down to 51 indicating that Sri Lanka was gradually losing her Buddhist identity.  

Dr. Ananda Guruge, delivering the keynote address said that he, having been associated with the Buddhist Committee of Inquiry of 1956, was sad to see Buddhists continued to face the same problems. No proper steps had been taken to deal with them for the past 60 years.  According to him, it is the very reason for the current crisis.   The biggest problem was the flow of unlimited foreign funds to evangelists and proselytizers for converting the poor and to mislead the young.  He assured, he would draw the attention of the world Buddhist community to unethical conversions in Sri Lanka.

ACBC President Jagath Sumathipala appointed the commission on June 11, 2006 at the historical Mihintale sacred site with retired Supreme Court Judge Sarath Gunatilleke as its Chairman.  The Commission first issued its report in Sinhala in 2009 after touring the country for almost four years collecting evidence on unethical conversions from the Buddhist clergy and the laity. A total of 348 witnesses had given evidence before the commission.