ASIA/SRI LANKA - Guarantee freedom of conscience and religion: indispensable condition for democracy - Local Church works to maintain dialogue with Buddhists while opposing the “anti-conversion” law and proposing mixed Commission state/religious communities

Saturday, 10 July 2004

Colombo (Fides Service) - Unless every citizen is guaranteed freedom of conscience and religion it will be impossible to build harmony and peace, development and prosperity and make Sri Lanka an authentic democracy the Catholic Bishops affirm. Peace and religious freedom are two of the highest values of human coexistence: the recent rise nationalism and Buddhist fundamentalism against religious minorities and a Bill presented in Parliament to “prohibit conversions” are disquieting signs which a cause of concern all men and women of good will.

Bishops’ Statement
For this reason Bishops of Sri Lanka issued a statement at the end of June expressing disapproval for the law which aims to prohibit or restrict conversions and called on people of good will to work to guarantee freedom of conscience and worship for all. The statement issued jointly with leaders of the main Christian communities in Sri Lanka, criticised a “Ban on forced Conversions” Bill published in the official gazette on May 18 and put before Parliament and other draft laws to prevent conversions to be discussed by the government of Colombo.
The Christian leaders say they reject all non ethical practices or any form of constriction to convert a person but they underline that if the law were approved it would not solve the problem: on the contrary it would create difficulties; besides serious violation of religious freedom it would open the way for oppression of religious minorities in the country.

Local Catholic Church concerned
Concerned at the possible erosion of freedom of personal choice and the pluralist character of the country, both essential pillars of a modern democratic society, the local Church proposes the institution of a special mixed commission of government representatives and representatives of the different religious communities to deal with the problem which must be carefully examined and alternative solutions found to simply a law banning conversion, without considering the delicate question in all its implications and globality.

Extremist group in Parliament
Observer say this law is the price which Kumaratunga’s government will have to pay to one of the parties in the coalition: the extremist party Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), formed immediately following the elections by a group of fundamentalist Buddhist monks which won seats in parliament. But to see monks in institutional positions “is a dangerous mix of politics and religion, which presents a serious threat to the secular character of the nation”, a perplexed mission in Colombo told Fides.

Buddhism and Buddhist fundamentalism
Active political militancy of monks has however split the world of Buddhism, always inspired by detachment from worldly occupations and the search for interior harmony.
Over recent months sectors steeped in nationalism put aside this principle and launched a nationalist campaign fomenting fanaticism and intolerance and even attacks on churches. They chose candidates for Parliament disregarding advice from an important leader of Theravada Buddhism practised in Sri Lanka, who died a short while ago and on his death bed urged the monks to live in their temples and not in the houses of worldly power ”.
During the electoral campaign President Kumaratunga road along with this extremist Buddhist position for her own political advantage. To gain votes she did not hesitate to play the card of standing as a stronghold of a Sri Lanka, Sinhalese and Buddhist.

The question of religion in peace process
It is a fact, according to authoritative Fides sources in Sri Lanka, that many Buddhist communities, monasteries and Buddhist leaders look with diffidence on the peace process and are reluctant to give concessions to the Tamil (mainly Hindus), because they want to preserve a Sri Lanka Sinhalese and Buddhist and they could be a major obstacle to peace.

The role of the local Catholic Church
For her part the local Church has always served as a bridge north south. Since the Church has members who are Sinhalese and Tamil in so many years of civil war she has always been force of balance and a channel of reconciliation.
Today the local Church has institutes, centres and missionaries deeply committed to trauma healing, helping young and old to put behind them the tragedies of civil war a build a culture of reconciliation at all levels of society.

Peace process: obstacles Constitution
Not everyone is able to see the peace process and full unfurling of individual freedoms as a shuttlecock for economic and social development and a renewed image on the international scene. Many are still locked in the logic of barricades between different ethnic groups and religions.
Sri Lanka’s constitution does recognise Buddhism as the main religion but it also guarantees the right of citizens with other religious beliefs to practise their faith in complete freedom.
(PA) (Agenzia Fides 10/7/2004 lines 62 words 646)