Last Updated: Thursday, 21 August 2014, 11:05 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2009 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2009
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2009 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Sri Lanka, 1 May 2009, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/4a4f27251a.html [accessed 22 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

The Commission has remained concerned in recent years about religious freedom in Sri Lanka because of attacks targeting members of religious minorities and their places of worship and proposed legislation on religious conversion that, if enacted, would have violated international law norms and resulted in abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Both issues are occurring against the backdrop of a 26-year civil war between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), who are seeking an independent state in the north of the country.

In January 2009, ongoing violence escalated dramatically in the northern Vanni region of the Mullaithivu district, as the LTTE sought to maintain control of a narrow conflict zone. The Commission joins the international human rights community in expressing its serious concern about the humanitarian crisis that has emerged in the wake of the renewed violence. According to estimates from early April, 60,000 individuals have fled the violence and 150,000 to 200,000 civilians remained trapped in 17square kilometers controlled by the LTTE. UN agencies place the civilian death toll from late January to March at 2,800, with at least an additional 7,000 injured.

Despite harassment, killings, and restrictions upon the movement of human rights activists and journalists throughout the 26 year conflict, evidence of severe atrocities carried out on both sides of the conflict has been well-documented. In the context of the civil war, violence against civilians based on ethnicity and/or religion has occurred throughout the country. Reports indicate that both sides in the conflict fail to take steps to prevent or stop incidents of communal violence between or among Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindu Tamils, Muslims, and Christians in Sri Lanka. Places of worship from various faith communities have been targeted by both government and LTTE forces. Attacks have occurred on religious holidays or during festivals. Moreover, for years, entire communities of Sri Lankan Muslims in the north and northeastern parts of the country have been displaced by LTTE forces seeking to consolidate Tamil hold over certain areas. While the LTTE has apparently encouraged displaced Muslims in some areas to return, a lack of safety guarantees has kept many Muslims from returning to LTTE-dominated areas.

Not directly connected to the civil conflict, there have been continuing instances of violent attacks on churches, ministers, and other Christian individuals in the past few years, reportedly carried out by members of, or persons affiliated with, extremist groups espousing Buddhist nationalism. There are reports that in the rural areas, churches and individual Christians, who comprise approximately 7 percent of the population, have been physically assaulted by one or more persons or by large groups, particularly for alleged attempts to convert Buddhists to Christianity. According to activists with whom the Commission delegation met during its February 2006 visit, there were about 400 incidents against Christian institutions or persons between 2000 and 2005; approximately half of those involved violence of varying levels and half were verbal threats. More recently, in June 2008, an anti-Christian rally and petition against a local church was sponsored in Hambantota district by a local Buddhist temple. Prior to the rally, which attracted 500 participants, a Christian girl was attacked for attending church in the district. In March 2008, a crowd of 200 surrounded the home of a pastor in Galle district and threatened him with death if he did not permanently leave the area. Arson attacks on church properties and assaults on Christians leaving church services were also reported. In February 2008, two men killed Neil Sampson Edirisinghe, pastor of the House Church Foundation in Ampara District. According to news reports, the pastor was ordered killed by a man whose wife converted to Christianity.

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief noted in her 2005 report on Sri Lanka that attacks against religious minorities by non-state actors were neither adequately investigated nor punished by the government, resulting in a culture of impunity. This problem is compounded by wider, more chronic deficiencies in the judicial system in Sri Lanka, including corruption, a lack of police training, and inadequate infrastructure.

In recent years, there have been allegations, particularly in the period immediately after the December 2004 tsunami, of groups and individuals engaging in "unethical practices" to encourage people to change their religion, which are said to take advantage of impoverished populations and lead to increased tensions among religious communities in Sri Lanka. These practices allegedly have included, for example, the offering of money, employment, access to education or health care, or some other material good as an incentive to convert or join a particular church. Some religious organizations claim to have evidence that the poverty and unemployment of Buddhists in particular is being exploited via conversions to other religions by unethical or unfair means.

With regard to these reports and allegations, the UN Special Rapporteur reported after her May 2005 visit to Sri Lanka that "despite repeated requests, the Special Rapporteur did not meet any person who had changed his or her religion because of allurement or other form of inducement. She has also not received any substantiated cases of conversion that would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief, such as forced conversions." However, she noted that that "some religious communities or religiously-affiliated nongovernmental organizations have demonstrated behavior that, while not constituting per se violations of the freedom of religion of others, were very disrespectful and dishonest vis-à-vis the local population they were addressing."

In January 2009, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, which is comprised of nationalist Buddhist monks, again brought to Parliament a draft anti-conversion law, the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill. The bill, if enacted, would provide for prison terms of up to five years for anyone who, by "the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means," converts or attempts to convert a person from one religion to another, or aids or abets such conversion. Because women, minors, inmates, the poor, and the physically or mentally disabled are considered by the bill's proponents to be particularly vulnerable, their conversion would warrant even harsher prison terms of up to seven years.

The bill defines "allurement" as the offer of any temptation for the purpose of converting, including any gift, gratification, or material benefit. It describes "force" as including not only threat of physical harm, but also the "threat of religious disgrace or condemnation of any religion for the purpose of converting." The bill defines "fraudulent" as "any willful misinterpretation or any other fraudulent contrivance." Opponents of the bill are concerned that its broad language would encompass all religious conversions, not just "unethical conversions," and would criminalize the charitable activities of religious groups.

The bill is largely the same proposal put forth in 2004 by the JHU, except without provisions requiring that conversions be reported to the government and providing punishments for failure to report, which the Sri Lankan Supreme Court ruled would be unconstitutional in August 2004. Regarding the bill's other provisions, however, the court found that the provisions criminalizing conversion by force, allurement, and fraudulent means were designed to ensure public order and welfare and therefore were constitutional. After amending the bill in light of the Supreme Court's decision, the bill had its first and second readings, and in 2005 was referred to a parliamentary committee. The Commission investigated the status of the proposed bill during its February 2006 fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka. In February 2009, the bill was submitted back to Parliament for its third reading and vote, which was then expected to take place in March 2009.

The JHU contends that the views of all religious communities in Sri Lanka have been incorporated into the bill, but this assertion has been challenged by both government and opposition party leaders. Proponents of anti-conversion legislation assert that their proposals are promulgated in response to reports of forced or unethical conversions. Indeed, the preamble to the 2004 and 2009 draft anti-conversion law states that Buddhism and other religions are faced with a threat from forcible conversions, and that religious leaders have realized the need to protect religious harmony in Sri Lanka. However, according to the UN Special Rapporteur, the proposed law was not "an appropriate response to the religious tensions and is not compatible with international human rights law." In February 2009, amidst international pressure, including from members of the U.S. Congress, the Sri Lankan government referred the anti-conversion bill to the Consultative Committee on Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment for discussion. In April 2009, the Religious Liberty Partnership, an international coalition of Christian organizations, expressed its support for this action in its Toronto Statement: "although extreme elements within religious sectors have called for anti-conversion laws, the government of Sri Lanka has taken care to protect the constitutional right to freedom of religious choice by not enacting proposed laws subjecting religious conversion to criminal scrutiny."

Although the committee's meeting has been indefinitely postponed, thus also indefinitely postponing further discussion of the draft anti-conversion legislation, the Commission will continue to monitor closely the status of the draft bill.

In February 2006, the Commission visited Sri Lanka and met with government officials, Members of Parliament, political parties, human rights organizations, and representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities.

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