Religious and human rights campaigners have warned against draconian measures being considered by Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka.
According to reports, he has hinted of his preparedness to introduce an anti-conversion bill to appease traditional Buddhist voters.
He said the new law would be necessary to ‘save the country’ from falling into deep difficulties. On 2 March, Rajapaksa, a leading member of the majority Sinhala Buddhist community and brother of the country’s president, spoke shortly before the announcement of a general election.
The election was due to take place on 25 April but was postponed because of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdown.
During the annual convention of the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, a network of 324 councils responsible for running Buddhist Dhamma schools, Rajapaksa outlined the ‘threats facing the Sinhala Buddhist nation’.
He said the conversion of ‘traditional Buddhist families to other religions’ is a major ‘threat’. He is reported to have told the convention he had recently attended a wedding of a friend where the family, which had been Buddhist for generations, had converted to another religion (which he did not name). Mr Rajapaksa’s own wife, Shiranthi, is a practising Roman Catholic.
During the address, Mr Rajapaksa implied that an anti-conversion bill could be introduced after the parliamentary elections if the Sanga Sabawa (Monks’ Council) unanimously agreed.
‘There are many that oppose it and that is why we don’t want to touch it,’ Rajapaksa told his audience. ‘If you want it, you must bring it forward unanimously, otherwise it will be my neck on the line,’ he added.
According to international Christian advocacy agency Barnabas Fund, the anti-conversions issue resonates with the nationalist slogan of “rata, jatiya, agama” (country, nation, religion) that is promoted to identify Theravada Sinhala Buddhism.
It is not the first time that Sri Lankan governments have attempted to bring in a directive to crack down on other religions.
In 2009, a draft bill stated an attempt to convert a person from one religion to another would be punishable with a jail sentence of up to seven years and a maximum fine of LKR 500,000 (£2,220).
Before then, a 2005 draft bill which had proposed similar penalties but lower maximum fines was struck down by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court as being ‘inconsistent’ with the constitution.
According to Barnabas Fund, Christian leaders in Sri Lanka said the latest proposal was part of the government’s pre-election campaign.
One pastor on the ground said, ‘They are using extremism to be popular. They have already started to collect information regarding churches through local government authorities. I believe they are strategically working out something against the house church movement.’