Sri Lanka’s Parliament is expected to pass the country’s first anti-conversion law next month. The proposed legislation, titled “Bill for Prohibition of Forcible Conversions,” was presented a second time to members of Parliament in January. It is expected to easily pass when it is presented for a vote in February.
Gospel for Asia missionaries work throughout Sri Lanka. They minister to people whose lives have been battered by a 26-year-old civil war and numerous natural catastrophes, including floods and a tsunami. In addition to the individual missionaries, GFA has a Bible college, Bridge of Hope centers and radio broadcasts in two languages in Sri Lanka. The GFA Bible college was targeted by protestors last year, but the protest ended peacefully.
“Our missionaries only want to share the love of Christ with the people of Sri Lanka,” said K.P. Yohannan, Gospel for Asia president. “They are not forcing anyone to change their faith. The reality is that those who choose to follow Christ know that they are opening themselves up to persecution and ridicule. It is not a decision these people make lightly.”
The proposed anti-conversion law, originally submitted in 2004, calls for penalties including fines up 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($4,425) and/or seven years in prison for anyone who tries to convert a Sri Lankan citizen from one religion to another by using force, fraud or allurement. The harshest punishments are reserved for those convicted of converting women or children.
The bill was drafted by the Jathika Hela Urumaya political party, whose leadership is comprised of Buddhist monks. A leader of that party has been quoted as saying that U.S.- funded Christian missionaries are one of the greatest threats facing Sri Lanka.
Sri Lanka’s constitution guarantees freedom of thought, consciences and religion. However, it also calls for Buddhism to hold the “foremost place.”
Sri Lanka is a tiny island off the southeast coast of India. Of the country’s 18.8 million residents, 71 percent are Buddhists. Another 12 percent are Hindu, and 8 percent are Muslim. Evangelical Christians comprise only about 1 percent of the population.
A number of observers and commentators are saying the legislation is in reaction to the decline in the number of Sri Lankans choosing to follow the Buddhist teaching. Buddhist leaders have expressed concern about the growth of Christianity, especially in the country’s rural areas. These Buddhist activists accuse Christians of offering jobs or money in order to get people to convert to Christianity. They were also harshly critical of many Christian aid organizations that worked in the country just after the 2004 tsunami.
Christians in Sri Lanka say elements of the bill allow vast leeway in interpretation and could result in the criminalization of most Christian activity aimed at helping the poor.
“Our Lord commands us to take the Gospel to all people, both the wealthy and the poor,” Yohannan said. “We need prayer that God will grant us the ability to continue ministering to the spiritual needs of all Sri Lankans, and when it is appropriate, the ability to continue providing for the physical needs of the country’s poorest residents.”
After the bill was read in Parliament the first time, Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court received 22 petitions challenging its validity. The court ruled that two of the clauses–the first requiring those who participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report it to a government official and the second prescribing punishment for such conversions–were ruled unconstitutional. The bill was amended and no longer contains those two clauses.
Gospel for Asia is an evangelical mission organization based in Carrollton involved in sharing the love of Jesus across South Asia.
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