bill is pointless"
a religious war is to break out in Sri Lanka, it is Buddha Sasana
Minister, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake and Christian Affairs Minister,
Milroy Fernando who will be locking horns first. Wickremanayake last
week announced he would submit the Anti-Conversion Bill proposed by the
Buddhist Congress to cabinet soon. However, Fernando seems to be ready
to oppose this move while describing the proposed bill as 'absurd'.
Fernando says the proposed bill if converted into a piece of legislation
in the country, would definitely affect the image of Sri Lanka. "We
cannot bring pressure on the freedom of thought, movement and conscience
of the citizens. This is wrong. The constitution of this country itself
provides for such freedoms," he explained. He told The Sunday
Leader that only a handful of people are backing this bill, while the
majority of Buddhists are not in favour of it.
The Christian community has come under a series of attacks in the recent
past. What plans have you made to safeguard their interests?
Everything possible. The Christian community comprises just seven
percent of the country and in my capacity as the Minister in charge of
Christian Affairs must ensure their interests are safeguarded. It is
unfortunate that the Christian community has been ridiculed this way,
but I think Christians who are taught to be humble and face such crises
with humility would continue to do so without a problem. I am glad that
the Christians have not reacted even after the savage attacks on them.
This is what the religion teaches, and I strongly believe the Christians
will abide by the principles of their religion.
What in your view are the problems faced by this community in Sri Lanka?
So far Christians in Sri Lanka have not faced problems. In fact we are
all fortunate that Sri Lanka's constitution itself has outlined
several safeguards for different religious organisations. Unlike
in some foreign countries, we Christians in Sri Lanka have been enjoying
all the facilities though there have been instances of bullying by some
factions. But it is only very recently that some elements have resorted
to these ruthless attacks
on Christians openly. And I think this is only the beginning. In the
days to come I feel Christians in Sri Lanka are going to face more
problems especially with the Buddhist Congress planning to introduce the
Anti-Conversion Bill in parliament.
How do you view the Anti Conversion Bill to be presented in parliament
by Buddha Sasana MinisterRatnasiri Wickrem- anayake? Do you think this
is bound to lead to religious wars in Sri Lanka in addition to the
ongoing ethnic conflict?
You see, Sri Lankans have faced a civil war for more than two
decades and this resulted in both the Tamil and the Sinhala communities
living with fear and hostility between communities. And now this
proposed plan to introduce the Anti-Conversion Bill, in my view is going
to create room for new conflicts among religions. It is not necessary
for Sri Lanka, a beautiful island, to experience such wars based on race
and religion. In my view, the Anti-Conversion Bill is pointless. It
makes no sense and does not contribute to anything.
Don't you think the attacks on Christians by the Buddhists goes against
their 'freedom of conscience' which they are entitled to enjoy like
others in Sri Lanka?
Definitely it goes against their conscience. But then what do we do when
these attacks are carried out? We have to be calm and this is the time
we have to practice our culture of patience and tolerance. I don't agree
that the Buddhists of this country attack the Christians. We have to get
the record straight. It is a handful of people who want to attack the
Christian community of this country. In fact a large section of the
Buddhist community is not in favour of these things. These attacks
result in the erosion of religious freedom and the freedom of thought. I
think it is definitely unfair because Buddhism is practiced all over the
world without any hindrance. For instance take the United Kingdom and
the US, which are strong Christian countries. And they allow Buddhists
to practice their religion. So why can't we practice the same tolerance
in Sri Lanka?
The Marxist JVP and members of the Jathika Hela Urumaya have all
expressed solidarity with the Buddhist Congress to introduce this bill.
Does it mean this is part of the UPFA agenda-to attack Christians-as
these two parties are also involved in targeting Christians?
I am not too sure whether any political parties are behind this. I only
know that the Congress has initiated this and based on the Congress'
move, the Buddha Sasana Minister is to present this to cabinet for
approval. Otherwise I am really not sure whether these parties are also
involved in attacking the Christians.
Wickremanayake has already announced that he will submit this proposal
to cabinet shortly. If this is approved by cabinet and placed before
parliament, would you vote for it?
Well, this is a difficult question. Before that I will have to consult
the Bishops' Conference and other religious bodies that have now come
together to defend their interests. I will know what to do in parliament
only after I hold discussions with them. Of course if the majority in
parliament were in favour of this bill, then it would become law. This
is why I said the Christians could face more problems in the days to
So far the Churches that came under attack have not been compensated or
the attackers brought to book. Why?
Well, we are working on it. It was President Chandrika Kumaratunga who
took a firm decision to take action against anyone who attempted to
attack Christian churches. She did this while the government was under
former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. So I think we Christians
needn't worry too much about these things. The law of the land is still
there to protect them. We are still in the process of giving churches
that came under attack some relief. On the other hand there are only
certain established churches that are registered under this Ministry.
And this Ministry can only speak for these mainstream churches. On the
other hand there are so many religious organisations today functioning
in the country and I believe the Buddhists are angry with them and not
with the Catholic, Anglican or Methodist churches. The state will do
everything possible to protect these churches.
That means the 'free churches' don't come under your protection? Don't
they have the right to exercise their freedom of 'thought' and
I am afraid the Ministry cannot give any such protection to these
churches, as they are not registered with my Ministry. But nevertheless
it does not mean that these churches can be burnt and the worshippers
attacked. No. The state will take appropriate action if this happens.
The north east conflict is still unresolved. With no solution found for
this issue, religious conflicts have already begun in Sri Lanka. What in
your view deserves priority?
I think the north east conflict must be resolved soon. The religious
problem is nothing to worry about at the moment. That could be sorted
out in collaboration with our Buddhist brethren. But the protracted war
in my view must be sorted soon.
But within the UPFA there is opposition to the Interim Self Governing
Authority (ISGA) proposals put forward by the LTTE. President Chandrika
Kumaratunga herself has been inconsistent in her opinion about the ISGA.
How do you think a solution could be found?
The ISGA concept is debatable. It could be described as an attempt
to separate the country. I don't think anybody would support any moves
to separate the country. Without separating the country we must find a
solution. I strongly believe that the Tamil community's grievances must
be looked into and I must state here the new government is looking into
it. Don't forget that it is President Kumaratunga who initiated a
dialogue with the LTTE way back in 1994. So our interest to solve the
ethnic crisis politically has not waned.
But the dissolution of parliament led to the peace talks being stalled.
It is the action of President Kumaratunga that has caused an impasse in
It is a fact that the peace process is still on. President Kumaratunga
is still trying to find out ways and means to bridge the gap that has
already been created. Unfortunately the peace talks could not take off
the ground, but I am confident that too will take place in due course.
Everything needs time and space. So we have to exercise a lot of
patience in order to achieve something long lasting. The present impasse
is only a temporary one. We must appreciate the fact that the entire
country voted for peace and this itself in my view is something
commendable. It is nice to know that the entire country wants peace but
of course due to some technical reason the talks have stalled. Let us
wait and see patiently.
Recently government members of parliament behaved in the most boorish
manner. What action do you intend taking to bring about some discipline
in the House?
I may be the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, but I am not supposed
to look into the discipline of the members. That is the duty of the
Speaker and of course the Secretary General of Parliament. But I
severely condemn these acts by our members and hope there would be no
repetition of this nature. Their behaviour the other day was horrible.
But what to do? It is up to them to realise that they are
representatives of the masses of this country and that they should
behave well at all times.