Religion not clearly defined in Bill on forcible conversion

By Chandani Kirinde

A parliamentary debate on the controversial Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill is likely to be delayed because of ambiguities in the draft of the legislation.

The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) proposed the legislation as a private members’ bill as far back as July 2004. The party is keen to see the Bill debated soon, but other parties want further discussions before the bill is debated and put to a vote in the House.

When the matter was brought up in Parliament last Thursday, members agreed to refer the Bill to the Consultative Committee of the Ministry of Religious Affairs for further discussion.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera said he had concerns about the legislation.
“We are not against the principles of the Bill, but there should be more clarity on what constitutes a crime under this piece of legislation, and how it can be proved that a forcible conversion has taken place,” he said.

Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena said the government group had not discussed its own position on the Bill so far, and would decide once the Bill was discussed at the consultative committee. “The Bill is on the Order Book, but no date has been set for debate yet,” he said.

JVP parliamentary group leader MP Vijitha Herath said the JVP too had not taken up the matter as yet, and was hoping to seek clarifications on the Bill with the Consultative Committee.

The Bill was referred to a Standing Committee of Parliament and a report was submitted to the House on January 6. However, there was disagreement over the Bill’s contents, and it was pointed out that the draft did not define what constituted a religion.

The legislation seeks to prohibit the conversion of persons from one religion to another with the use of force or persuasion or by fraudulent means. If passed, the Bill will make it a criminal offence to aid and abet such forcible religious conversion of individuals. Punishment for those found guilty of such forcible conversion is between five to seven years imprisonment and fines ranging from Rs 150,000 to 500,000.

The higher prison terms and fines are for those who convert person classified as samurdhi beneficiaries, prison, rehabilitation and detention centre inmates, physically and mentally handicapped persons, members of the armed forces, the police, students, the inmates of refugee camps and minors.

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