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Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka

Militant Buddhists are attacking Christian churches and threatening the freedom of religion in South Asia.

12:00 AM, Aug 10, 2004 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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MILITANT BUDDHISM may sound like a contradiction in terms, especially while Islamic holy war is hogging the headlines. Nevertheless, in one of its periodic flare-ups in Sri Lanka, extremist Buddhist nationalism is threatening both the physical safety and the legal rights of that nation's Christian minority.

For purposes of comparison, consider: Sri Lanka is witnessing attacks on Christians at a rate far higher than the much noted wave of anti-Semitic violence in France. While church burnings and assaults on pastors and congregations have been mounting since the late 1990s, they apparently reached a crescendo early this year.

In the first four months of 2004, there were 44 assaults on churches in Sri Lanka, according to the tally maintained by Christian Solidarity Worldwide. Compass Direct, a wire service specializing in news of Christians who are persecuted for their faith, reports similar figures. Since Sri Lanka has about the population of Texas (20 million), this is the equivalent of 44 minority houses of worship--say, 44 mosques--being fire bombed or vandalized in that state in the space of four months.

In some instances, like the arson attack on the Assemblies of God church in Navatkerny on May 25, buildings reportedly are completely destroyed. In others, like the midnight attack on the Calvary Church in Wattegedara by about 20 people armed with bicycle chains, the police are alerted and the mobs are dispersed. The churches targeted are both Catholic and Protestant, located in the capital, Colombo, and in country villages.

The government of Sri Lanka is advancing a novel cure. Although extremist Buddhist monks have often proved to be instigators of the violence, the government--which depends on the support of the Buddhist nationalist JHU party--proposes to outlaw religious proselytizing.

A government bill approved by the council of ministers on June 16 would punish any speech or actions leading to religious conversion with up to seven years in prison and heavy fines. An apparently less draconian bill sponsored by a JHU member purports to ban only "forcible" conversions, induced through gifts or threats. In practice, however, both bills "would criminalize all peaceful religious assemblies that have the effect of converting individuals away from their current religions, whether or not the conversion was intended," according to an analysis by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm dedicated to freedom for all faiths.

The JHU bill is currently under constitutional review by the supreme court, which is expected to rubber stamp it by August 15. To do this, the court will have to ignore the constitution's guarantee of religious liberty: "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." The court will likely cite the state's duty, under the same constitution, "to protect and foster" the "foremost place" of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

A variety of protests have been lodged against the proposed anti-conversion laws. The Beckett Fund has detailed Sri Lanka's commitments to religious freedom under international treaties. The State Department and some members of Congress and of the British parliament have registered concern. Closer to the front lines, the Catholic Bishops Conference and the (Protestant) National Christian Council of Sri Lanka have issued a joint statement warning that the legislation would "pave the way for the oppression of minority religions in the country."

Sri Lanka is roughly 70 percent Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 7 percent Muslim, and 8 percent Christian (including 1 percent Protestant). As the joint statement notes, "All the four religions in our country have cherished and exercised the right to propagate their religion throughout the world. . . . It is both a basic feature and duty of all religions to teach and propagate their faith, for in doing so they spread the highest human values."

That view is not undisputed in the region. Half a dozen Indian states have anti-conversion laws; indeed, Gandhi favored banning all forms of conversion, notes Timothy Shah, a scholar of religious nationalism in South Asia and a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Nor is Sri Lanka's proposed ban a response to any documented surge in conversions or in missionary activity, Shah says. Rather, it reflects a new stirring of the nationalist belief that Sri Lanka, the last bastion of Buddhism in South Asia, must be protected from threats real and imagined. The death last December of an elderly Buddhist monk, a particular nationalist icon who warned against religious minorities and who died while visiting (alien, Christian) Russia, generated conspiracy theories that ignited some of the violence this spring.