Friday, August 15, 2003

Sri Lanka: no right to 'propagate religion'

Date: Friday 15 August 2003
Subj: Sri Lanka: The Church's Darkest Hour
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator

The situation for Christians in Sri Lanka is deteriorating rapidly. Only around one percent of Sri Lankans are evangelical Protestant Christian. The evangelical Church has grown in the past two decades. This is virtually exclusively due to the tireless ministry of indigenous Sri Lankan church planters and local personal witness.

The report below was prepared by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. It is deeply disturbing. Sri Lanka's Supreme Court has ruled that although it is permissible under Article 10 and 14(1)e of the Constitution for a person to manifest, observe and practice one's religion, that does NOT guarantee a fundamental right to propagate religion.

The Supreme Court also ruled that as Buddhism is the State religion, it is unconstitutional for Christian organizations that propose to carry out proselytization of the Christian faith to be able to be incorporated under an Act of Parliament. The Court further concluded that clauses 3 (right to observe and practise a religion) and 5 (right to hold property) of Sri Lanka's Incorporation Bill are unconstitutional, because (it reasoned) if a Christian organisation owns property, that might induce others to convert, thus violating their freedom of religion.

On top of all this, the progression of Sri Lanka's Anti-Conversion Bill (modelled on the Anti-Conversion Ordinance of Tamil Nadu, India) appears to be gaining momentum.

- EK

- from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka

Recent developments and trends affecting Religious Freedom:

1) Anti-Conversion Law - a new twist

The past two weeks have revealed a new development in the proposed Anti-Conversion Bill issue. Minister W.J.M. Lokubandara who is the Minister of Buddhism and Legal Reform has now taken up the cause and has formally announced on the electronic media that he will be presenting the anti-conversion Bill. As a senior Minister of the Cabinet and a stalwart of the governing party, Minister Lokubandara wields considerable power and influence.

Initially, it was Minister of Hindu Cultural Affairs Mr. Maheswaran, who championed the cause for an anti-conversion Bill, after his return from a visit to the Indian State of Tamil Nadu in November 2002. By July 2003, the draft legislation, modelled on the Tamil Nadu Bill was sent to the Attorney General's office (in keeping with procedure) prior to being presented in Parliament.

It is unclear whether Minister Lokubandara will be presenting Minister Maheswaran's draft or a different draft of the Bill.

2) Right of Incorporation and Constitutional Guarantees.

Within the past two years, three petitions have come up before the Supreme Court of Sri Lanka challenging the right of Christian ministries to be incorporated under an Act of Parliament. The third and latest judgment was delivered by the Supreme Court last week against the 'Provincial of the Teaching Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of St. Francis in Menzingen of Sri Lanka' - which is a Catholic Ministry.

(According to a news report in the Sunday Times newspaper on 10th August 2003) The Supreme Court, interpreting Article 10 and 14(1)e of the Constitution, ruled that although it was permissible under our Constitution for a person to manifest, observe and practice ones religion, it does not guarantee a fundamental right to propagate religion.

Article 9 of the Constitution guarantees Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly, casts a duty upon the State to protect and foster Buddhism. The Supreme Court held that the purpose of the ministry in question "the spread of knowledge of the Catholic religion and to impart religious, educational and vocational training to youth" (clause 3) is inconsistent with Article 9 of the Constitution; and therefore denied the right of incorporation. The object of clause 3 was seen as a threat to the very existence of Buddhism.

They further held that clause 3 and 5 in the incorporation Bill are unconstitutional. Clause 5 deals with the right of holding and receiving property both movable and immovable and or the power of disposing of such property. The court stated that this clause when combined with the objective of observance and practice of a religion or belief (clause 3), would necessarily result in imposing upon people who are defenceless, vulnerable or in need, improper pressure and inducement to adopt a religion or belief. This they stated, would violate Article 10 of the Constitution which guarantees the freedom of adopting a religion or belief.

The 3 judge bench consisted of Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, Justice H.S. Yapa and Justice Nihal Jayasinghe.

Minister Lokubandara, calling a press conference a day after the judgment was announced in Parliament, stated "this is a clear judgment. It will give us the legal backing to stop this kind of (*unethical conversion) activity carried out in the name of religion".

* The constant accusation levelled against the evangelical churches is 'unethical conversion'. So much so that the words 'unethical conversion' has become synonymous with 'conversion'. The accusation is that conversion is carried out by duping the poor to embrace a foreign religion by tempting them with material benefits and money.

The judgment and interpretation of Articles 9, 10 and 14 (1) (e) as applied by the learned justices in this case, form a dangerous precedent of law for all lower courts.

In the previous two judgments against 'Sahanaye Doratuwa' ministry in 2002 and 'New Harvest Wine Ministries' in January 2003, the Chief Justice ruled that incorporation of a Christian organization that proposes to carry out proselytization of the Christian faith is unconstitutional.

The collective effect of all the above developments predict a very dark time ahead for the Church in Sri Lanka. The Supreme Court decisions will definitely be a strong platform for launching the anti-conversion Bill.