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Friday, June 14, 2024

Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil

Ranga Jayasuriya
 Early this week, the General Secretary of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Galaboda Aththe Gnanasara Thera, giving evidence in a Court hearing, on an attack on the Calvary Church at Araliya Place, Thalahena, alleged that 374 organizations, registered under the Company Act, are involved in ‘unethical conversions’ of Buddhists in the country. He alleges that the police, under the instructions of the Attorney General’s Department, had provided ‘protection’ to those institutions.

Such assertions, though unverified, tend to generate strong reactions from certain quarters of the population. Though projected as a lament, by extension, those assertions also provide a subtle justification for the attacks on places of worship. In other words, they blame the aggrieved party for inviting trouble or getting attacked.
Those remarks are very much in line with the official government version of those events, which the government has described as random incidents blamed on the reaction of the neighbourhood, provoked by the noisy congregation.

This is what Prof. G.L. Peiris told this writer, when he was questioned during an interview about the attacks on places of worship of religious minorities:

“In many cases, those are not churches, temples or mosques; those are rooms in private houses which are being used as prayer rooms. Then let’s say on a public holiday, there is a greater deal of noise and there is reaction from the neighbourhood. That has nothing to do with religious intolerance and even less so to do with the government support. It is a local neighbourhood reacting to what it considers as a disturbance.

“There are rules in this country governing the establishment of places of worship. You cannot simply convert a room in a private house into a place of worship, and then complain if there is a problem in connection to the room in your own house. All of these are matters that need to be taken into consideration. Simply to listen to someone, come to a conclusion and broadcast it to the rest of the world, is, in our view, not a responsible course of action.”
The same account of events is reflected in an official communiqué issued by the Ministry of External Affairs, in response to remarks made by US Assistant Secretary of State, Nisha Biswal, in Colombo.

“In fact, the latest allegation of religious intolerance, repeatedly stated by the US, appears to be in order to give credence to isolated incidents as a regular occurrence. It is well-known that many of the facilities for religious worship which have been targeted are those operating in violation of the guidelines governing the establishment of these places. It has generally been found that these incidents have been a reaction on the part of the community residents in those areas. Attributing blame to the government is totally unwarranted. While legal action has been taken with regard to some incidents, others have been settled amicably. Therefore, the criticism is grossly disproportionate and politically motivated.”

However, the fact of the matter is that the government’s lax attitude, evident in the statements made by its key interlocutors, tends to embolden a minority of Buddhist zealots and foster further attacks.
Equally worrying is that the number of attacks that are investigated and prosecuted leading to convictions is alarmingly low. That may be partly due to the fact that the two sides had agreed to reconcile out of Court. However, the absence of convictions itself fosters a climate of impunity which begets further attacks.

The government’s mollycoddling of the religious right is partly driven by its considerations of its constituency. Those considerations are, however, not limited to its alliance with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), the ultra nationalist party which has gradually become redundant as the government and some of its key interlocutors are adopting the slogans of the JHU. The primary driver for the government’s lenient approach towards rising religious extremism is that this increasingly intolerant message in the revisionist Buddhist Right has found a receptive audience in the government’s core constituency, the average Sinhalese Buddhist folks, who are by no means extremists or intolerant. However, courtesy largely exaggerated claims spouted in a virulent campaign led by a microscopic minority of religious zealots, they now feel aggrieved that their religion is under threat by aggressive proselytizing of Evangelical groups.

The vast majority of claims of unethical conversions are exaggerated and unsubstantiated, and are, in fact, contrary to the very idea of religious freedom, which also includes the right to change the religion. Nonetheless, those claims propagated in a well-oiled propaganda campaign have shaped the outlook of the average Sri Lankan Buddhists populace, whose religiosity may have overpowered their good judgment.

A case in point
In other words, this is religious radicalization, though the impact of the process as of now may be mild. However, once the wheels of radicalization are set in the motion, they take a life of its own and in the long run would destroy the nation and its polity from within.

Pakistan which nurtured Islamic extremism as part of its strategic culture and is now a victim of that very extremism, is a case in point. Two moderate politicians had who campaigned to abolish country’s draconian blasphemy laws, which had regularly been abused to prosecute Christians and moderates, were killed in recent times. On one occasion, the assassin of a Punjab Governor was garlanded by the lawyers, when he was produced before Court. Extreme religiosity and indoctrination have the dangerous potential to turn its population into mind-altered zombies.

The Sri Lankan Government, in fact made too previous aborted attempts to pass an unethical conversion bill, which was viewed as a blatant violation of religious freedom by minority groups. In the first instance, the Anti- Conversion Bill, spearheaded by the JHU, was shelved by the then Chandrika Kumaratunga Government in the face of the local and international pressure.

A second bill – the Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ was tabled in 2009. The provisions of the Bill criminalized any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to Rs 500,000 (US 4,425). However, the government had not proceeded with the Bill, though it was initially touted as ‘fulfilling a campaign promise’ of the Rajapaksa administration, due to obvious international repercussions.

But, in the grass roots, the government has failed to act with same prudence. Its constituency considerations have blinded it from potential, disastrous fallout of rising religious intolerance. Worse still, by its condoning of the religious rights, the government is aiding and abetting to deform one of the most liberal and tolerant religions in the world, Buddhism


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