4th July, 2004  Volume 10, Issue 51

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"Anti-conversion bill is pointless"

If 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.

Following are excerpts:  

By Wilson Gnanadass 

Q: The Christian community has come under a series of attacks in the recent past. What plans have you made to safeguard their interests?

A: 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.

Q: What in your view are the problems faced by this community in Sri Lanka?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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?

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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 come.

Q: So far the Churches that came under attack have not been compensated or the attackers brought to book. Why?

A: 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.

Q: That means the 'free churches' don't come under your protection? Don't they have the right to exercise their freedom of 'thought' and 'conscience'?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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. 

Q: 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 the process?

A: 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.

Q: 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?

A: 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.


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