Lankan Buddhists take on Church
by Sandhya Jain on 09 Jun 2009 30 Comments

Little lion-hearted Lanka leads by example once again. It was the first nation in the post-Second World War era to elect a woman prime minister; then it became the first nation to spurn ineffective external intermediaries in a fratricidal war and launch a concerted armed effort to end violent secessionism once and for all.

Now, the island’s Buddhist religious leadership has risen to redeem the Indic tradition by repudiating inter-faith dialogue and demanding national legislation against conversions. India would do well to take a leaf out of Colombo’s book, given the mischief Christian colonial powers are wreaking in our neighbourhood: Myanmar, Nepal, Tibet, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and of course, Iraq.  

Sri Lanka’s Joint Committee of Buddhist Organizations (JCBO) wants reintroduction of the stalled Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion (L.D.O./INC/7/2004). This is being criticised by Christian bodies, and 24 mainline Christian leaders, including 18 Catholic Bishops and retired Bishops, the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Baptist Sangamaya, Presbyterian Church and Salvation Army have appealed to parliamentarians against it. 

They contend that the proposed Bill will undermine the democratic right of religious freedom to choose a religion according to one’s conscience; prevent Christians and adherents of all religions to stand with the affected and serve one another for fear of legal consequences in spite of their innocence; and provoke more inter-religious suspicion, tension and conflict than resolve them. They claim that all religions in Sri Lanka have originated outside the island, and that over the centuries, the Christian Church and Christians have become an intrinsic part of the social fabric.

This mischievous re-packing of the colonial Aryan-Dravidian divide insinuates Hinduism and Buddhism as imports from India (with ‘Dravidian’ Tamils as Hindus); it was stoutly rebuffed by Gamini Perera and Chitra Wijesekera, co-conveners of the JCBO.

They countered that the Christian Church emanated from a colonial background of repression and could not equate itself with Buddhism, which has molded the life, culture and traditions of the country for over 2550 years. The JCBO said the barbaric manner in which different brands of Christianity spread is well documented. Despite this, tolerant Buddhist rulers and people permitted other believers to merge with the national social fabric and even protected the Catholic community when hunted by Dutch Protestants, offering even temple premises for religious activities; similar asylum was given to Muslims attacked by the British. All religions could enjoy all privileges only because of the magnanimity of the Buddhists. 

Addressing Christian leaders directly, the JCBO said some of their major activities were directed at expanding Christianity through questionable means. Their commendable humanitarian services stand marred by subtle, long-term strategies to attract persons of other religions to their faith. Christians have established good educational infrastructure and turned this to undue advantage by alluring non-Christian parents to accept immoral conditions for the admission of their wards to Christian schools, even though many schools receive sizeable public funds. In India too, Christian NGOs corner governmental aid in the name of their developmental expertise; and the possible misuse of these funds has never been probed.

Gamini Perera and Chitra Wijesekera charge that the Church never denounced or took action against Catholic Bishops with LTTE links. In fact, the activities of some senior Christian clergy aimed at breaking up the nation, and even today, some Christian leaders’ statements are unduly biased in favour of the LTTE.

The JCBO openly charged the Churches of synchronizing their myriad activities to achieve the objective of Christianizing the Buddhist world. The late Pope John Paul II said when he visited India: “the task ahead of the Church is the evangelizing of Asia during this millennium.” Way back in 1940, Rt. Rev. Lakdasa De Mel, on elevation as Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Church, had asserted: “The task of the Church in Ceylon will not be finished till the remaining ninety percent of the population, who are not Christian, are converted.”

The Buddhist leaders rejected Christian concerns about the anti-conversion bill, pointing out that original Bill had been placed before the island’s Supreme Court and after two full days of comprehensive arguments by both sides, the Court determined that its main contents were acceptable, barring a few amendments necessary to qualify it to be passed by ordinary majority in Parliament; these have been attended to since. The Bill has no provisions to prevent acting according to one’s conscience or make one who does so an offender.

But, and here lies the rub, it designates as offenders those who convert or attempt to convert by force, allurement or fraud, or aid and abet such conversions. The Buddhist clergy forcefully asserts that it does not accept “Sri Lankan society as presently constituted as a pluralistic society, but this notwithstanding, the Bill in no way undermines or tampers with the right to one’s conscience.” There are, it points out, special protections to ensure frivolous actions are not brought before a Court. Clearly, six decades of dominant western political rhetoric is meeting its Waterloo in Colombo!

Batting valiantly for the Buddhist-Hindu ethos, the JCBO alleges that inter-religious tension is rising because of the activities of evangelical churches, better known as fundamentalist Christian groups. This was admitted by Bishop Malcolm Ranjith, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference, in a letter to the Ministry of Cultural and Religious Affairs in May 2000.

Christian fundamentalists boldly oppose Buddhist monks defending the freedom of religion of Buddhists targetted for unethical conversions; monks are often subjected to threats and violence. In North Lanka, where Christian Churches have long had a privileged presence, an alarmingly large number of helpless Hindus have been pushed to change their faith. In India, Hindu monks defending the underprivileged against forced conversions are shot to death (Shanti Kali ji, Agartala; Swami Laxmanananda, Kandhamal) or hacked to pieces (Swami Ramcharan Das, Puri).

The Buddhist clergy maintain that 80 percent Lankans are legitimately aggrieved at the absence of a law against unethical conversions. Rejecting the Christian plea for an Inter Religious Council to discuss conversions because the goal of the Church to evangelize the entire region is unchanged, it urged Parliament to debate the Bill and take it to its logical conclusion. India needs a dose of such clear thinking and bold affirmation in defence of its civilisational ethos.

The author is Editor,

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