Sri Lankan government drafting new law against “unethical conversions” amid violent attacks on Christians

The government of Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka is drafting proposed legislation to counter a rise in religious conversions.

The news comes amidst reports of violent attacks on Christians in Divulapitiya, Gampaha District, and Passara, Badulla District.

Professor Kapila Gunawardana, Minister of Buddhasasana, Religious and Cultural Affairs (the Sri Lankan government’s department with oversight of religious policy) argued that legal change was now necessary to combat religious conversions allegedly made for financial gain or to get access other services, such as education.

Allegations of offering inducements for conversion are made against both Christians and Muslims. Christian converts come from both the majority-Buddhist Sinhala and majority-Hindu Tamil ethnic groups. Most converts are from the Sinhala group which represents a majority (75%) of the Sri Lankan population, but a higher proportion of Tamils (25% of the overall population) are converting.

The post-colonial “conversion controversy”

A “conversion controversy” regarding alleged inducements was first given formal attention in the Buddhist Commission Report of 1956, released two years after independence. The Buddhist Committee of Inquiry was established to investigate the state of Buddhism in Sri Lanka at that time. Subsequently, the Sri Lankan government and All Ceylon Buddhist Congress initiated several investigations, all of which accused the Church of converting people with inducements of education, employment and financial benefits.

The criticisms were based on Christian missionaries’ earlier creation of educational institutions and business opportunities, which are considered to have influenced people to embrace Christianity. “We are looking at a legal framework to combat the issue of unethical conversions, as at the moment there is no legal provision through which we can act,” said Gunawardana. “While people have the right to follow the religion they want, various financial gains and other services are obtained through unethical conversions, and that must be stopped,” he added.

Opposition MP defends constitutional protection of religious freedom

Some high-profile Buddhist and Hindu individuals, including politicians and other well-known figures who have converted to Christianity, had been “targeted for unethical conversion” recently, according to Dr Medagama Dhammananda Thera, the Chief Secretary of the Asgiriya Chapter of the Siam Sect (an order of Buddhist monks). The Buddhist leader called for amendments to Article 14 (1) (e) of the constitution “in such a way as to stop unethical conversions”.

Bringing restrictions to Article 14, which presently guarantees freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching, was countered by MP Eran Wickramaratne of the main opposition party, Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB). The MP said that freedom of thought and religion must not be restricted, adding that “unethical behaviour of all kinds must be corrected through ethical means”.

A Sri Lankan church leader pointed out to Barnabas that Dr Medagama Dhammananda Thera’s statement also seems to conflict with Professor Gunawardana’s concerns over financial inducements. “The influential politicians and artists becoming Christians – certainly, they are not converting for financial benefits and education,” he said.

The Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) has been expected to introduce anti-conversion legislation since winning a landslide election in August 2020. Months earlier Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, brother of the president and a leading member of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, indicated that he was prepared to introduce an anti-conversion bill to “save this country” from falling into deep difficulties.

Two violent attacks on Christians in the first months of 2021

Meanwhile, Christians were targeted in two violent incidents. In January 2021, a pastor visiting a Christian home in Passara was threatened by a mob of about 75 people including a Buddhist monk. The crowd threw stones at the house, violently attacked the pastor’s driver, and eventually forced the pastor and his wife to leave the village.

In February a church building in Divulapitiya was attacked with stones and petrol bombs. Three female ministry workers, who live in the church building, were thankfully unhurt.

In October 2020, a Sri Lankan pastor was forced to stop his ministry in Bakamuna, Polonnaruwa District, after being threatened and intimidated by police and Buddhist monks. Sri Lankan Christians, who make up 8% of the population, suffer discrimination and harassment and sometimes violence from Buddhist extremists, Hindu extremists and  Muslim extremists. Many Christians are very poor and also face frequent persecution and local opposition, which is often led by Buddhist monks.

Barnabas Fund,