News

New laws against unethical conversions

  • Complaints on the rise: Buddhasasana Ministry

  • Asgiriya Chapter singles out ‘Born Again’

  • Financial and educational incentives covered

  • Monks seek amendment to Article 14(1)(e)

 

The Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs is currently drafting a legal framework to take action against the unethical conversion of individuals to different religions, The Morning learnt.

“We are looking at a legal framework to combat the issue of unethical conversions, as at the moment there is no legal provision through which we can act,” Ministry of Buddhasasana, Religious, and Cultural Affairs Secretary Prof. Kapila Gunawardana told The Morning yesterday (17).

Prof. Gunawardana emphasised the need for legal provisions, adding that complaints to the Ministry regarding the matter have been on the rise in recent times.

When inquired as to the demarcation between ethical and unethical conversions, Prof. Gunawardana said that religious conversions for financial gains or in order to access other services such as education are regarded as unethical.

“While people have the right to follow the religion they want, various financial gains and other services are obtained through unethical conversions, and that must be stopped,” noted Prof. Gunawardana.

The Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith raised similar concerns recently in a statement to the press, where he urged the Government to formulate a legal framework against self-proclaimed pastors who target celebrities such as artistes and sportsmen for unethical conversions.

Meanwhile, Siam Sect Asgiriya Chapter Supreme Sangha Council Secretary Dr. Medagama Dhammananda Thera told The Morning yesterday that in recent times, unethical conversions are targeted at highly influential political and cultural figures, as opposed to poorer people from rural areas.

“While this has been a long-running problem in the country, earlier, this issue was mostly found at a village level. Now, there are pastors in Parliament who push their agenda for reasons other than politics,” claimed Dr. Dhammananda Thera.

The monk alleged that groups such as the “Born Again Christians” have taken a business outlook.

According to Dr. Dhammananda, these concerns have been raised with both President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the committee of experts appointed to draft the new Constitution.

“On 13 February, we met the said committee and advised them on this issue. Specifically, we hope that Article 14 of the Constitution would be amended in a way so as to stop unethical conversions in future,” said Dr. Dhammananda Thera.

Article 14(1)(e) presently guarantees the freedom, either by oneself or in association with others and either in public or in private, to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.

Speaking to The Morning yesterday, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP Eran Wickramaratne said that the freedom of thought and religion must not be restricted, but that unethical behaviour of all kinds must be corrected through ethical means.

“Article 10 of the Constitution states that everyone is entitled to the freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of one’s choice. It is the spirit of this Article that has prevailed through the millennia,” said Wickramaratne, adding that an attempt to correct unethical practices must not infringe on the rights of individuals.

Meanwhile, speaking to The Morning, Attorney-at-Law Dr. Gehan Gunatilleke said that it is important to differentiate between coercion and conversion through personal choice during the drafting of such laws.

“Such interactions between someone who wants to profess their religion and someone who chooses to change their religion cannot be regarded as coercion. The law can be used to regulate coercion but has no place when it comes to ordinary interactions where some individuals try to convince others to adopt their religion,” said Dr. Gunatilleke.

He also stressed the need to understand the intentions behind the drafting of such laws, adding that awareness of whether these laws would help the vulnerable people they claim to help or just take away the agency of those individuals, is necessary.

“There is a difference between bad faith laws designed to protect a dominant religion that suffers from an existential fear and legal provisions such as Article 18(2) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects individuals from being coerced to adopt another religion,” Dr. Gunatilleke further said.

Although an anti-conversion bill was tabled by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in Parliament in 2009, it was ultimately not passed. Last year, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa raised concerns regarding this issue, when he claimed that the conversion of “traditional Buddhist families to other religions” is a major threat, in a speech made at the annual convention of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress.