USCIRF Annual Report 2010 - Additional Countries Closely Monitored: Sri Lanka

In recent years, USCIRF has been concerned about religious freedom in Sri Lanka because of attacks targeting religious minorities and proposed legislation on religious conversion that, if enacted, would violate international norms regarding freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. Although USCIRF has never placed Sri Lanka on its CPC or Watch Lists, the Commission continued to monitor Sri Lanka in 2009-10.

Until 2009, Sri Lanka was ravaged by a 26-year civil war between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an ethnically-based insurgent movement seeking an independent state in the north and east of the country. In January 2009, the ongoing violence escalated dramatically, as government forces successfully attacked LTTE positions, pushing them into an area of about 36 square miles. In May 2009, the government declared victory announcing that it had killed LTTE leader Prabhakaran. During the final days of fighting in April and May 2009, there were unconfirmed reports both of the LTTE locating artillery pieces next to religious facilities and the army firing heavy weapons at the same sites, often while they were in use as shelters for civilians.

In the context of the civil war, violence against civilians based on ethnicity and/or religion occurred throughout the country. Both sides in the conflict failed to take steps to prevent or stop incidents of communal violence involving Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindu Tamils, Muslims, and Christians. Both government and LTTE forces targeted places of worship of various faith communities, and attacks took place during religious holidays and festivals.

Moreover, for years, entire communities of Sri Lankan Muslims in the north and northeastern parts of the country were displaced by LTTE forces seeking to consolidate Tamil hold over certain areas. Since the government defeated the LTTE, many of the more than 100,000 Muslims who were displaced have still not returned. Many fled as long ago as 1990 and do not have the proper documentation required to reclaim their homes and ancestral lands.

Over the course of the conflict, severe restrictions on the movement of journalists and humanitarian workers also were routine. While human rights groups frequently cite a cumulative conflict death toll of 70,000, the Sri Lankan government suppresses evidence of the death of its own troops, making impossible an accurate count of casualties. The frequent "disappearances" of Sinhalese and civilian and insurgent Tamils by government forces also are underreported. Despite harassment, killings, and restrictions placed on the movement of human rights activists and journalists, evidence of severe atrocities carried out on both sides of the conflict has been well-documented. The UN long has called for an investigation of human rights abuses, but the Sri Lankan government continues to insist it did nothing wrong and calls allegations of human rights abuses "misinterpretations."

While not directly connected to the civil conflict, violent attacks on churches, clergy, and individual Christians have taken place during the past few years, reportedly carried out by members of, or persons affiliated with, extremist groups espousing Buddhist nationalism. Attacks on Christians have ranged from harassment and threats to vandalizing properties and arson. Cases were rarely investigated and perpetrators rarely brought to justice, resulting in a culture of impunity. This problem is compounded by wider, more chronic deficiencies in the judicial system in Sri Lanka, including corruption, an absence of police training, and inadequate infrastructure.

There are continuing reports that in the rural areas, churches have been attacked and Christians (who comprise approximately 7 percent of the country's population) have been physically assaulted by individuals or groups, particularly for alleged attempts to convert Buddhists to Christianity. Examples in 2009-10 include the March 2009 attack by a man wielding a machete of an assistant pastor and a church worker of the Vineyard Community Church at Pannala in Kurunegala district. Although the crime was reported, the police failed to make any arrests. In April 2009, a pastor in Weeraketiya, Hambanthota district was harassed and threatened by four people. The harassment escalated and one of the attackers was taken into police custody, but released the next day. The attacker then gathered Buddhist monks and other villagers to sign a petition against the church. In response, the pastor canceled Good Friday and Easter Sunday celebrations and relocated his children to a safer location. A mob of more than 100 people, including Buddhist monks, in June 2009 surrounded the home of a female pastor in a Foursquare Gospel Church in Radawana village, Gampaha district, and vandalized her house. When the police called her in for questioning on July 11, protestors tried to bar her and other pastors from entering the police station. She was later forced in the presence of Buddhist monks and protestors to sign a document promising not to host worship services for non-family members.

In recent years, and particularly in the period immediately after the December 2004 tsunami, there have been allegations that groups and individuals have engaged in "unethical practices" to encourage people to change their religion, and that these actions take advantage of impoverished and unemployed 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. However, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief was unable to confirm any such cases when she visited Sri Lanka in 2005.

In January 2009, in response to this purported problem, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, which is comprised of nationalist Buddhist monks, brought to parliament a draft anti-conversion law, the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill. The bill was largely the same proposal the JHU put forth in 2004, minus several provisions the Sri Lankan Supreme Court had ruled unconstitutional. The UN Special Rapporteur indicated that the 2004 bill was neither an appropriate response to religious tensions nor compatible with international human rights law.

The 2009 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 a conversion. Because the bill's proponents consider women, minors, inmates, the poor, and the physically or mentally disabled 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.

In February 2009, the anti-conversion bill was submitted back to parliament for its third reading, and a vote was expected to take place in March 2009. However, amidst international pressure, including from members of the U.S. Congress, the Sri Lankan government referred the bill for discussion to the Consultative Committee on Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment. The Committee's meeting, and therefore any further discussion of the bill, has been indefinitely postponed. The JHU has indicated that it would like to bring up the bill again in 2010, but this has not yet happened. USCIRF will continue to monitor closely the status of this draft bill.


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