An Interview with the General Secretary of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka Mr. Godfrey Yogarajah on the Proposed Anti-Conversion Laws
Interview by S.K Xavier
Q. Mr. Yogarajah, if you are to make a one sentence comment about the proposed anti-conversion Bill, what would it be?
A. It is a violation of one's fundamental and human rights.
Q. How can these laws affect the Sri Lankan community, particularly the Church?
A. There are two bills, one by JHU and the other by the Minister of Buddha Sasana, Mr. Ratnasiri Wickremanayake. The JHU bill is already gazetted and tabled in Parliament. We have just seven days to challenge it before the Supreme Court, and we have already petitioned the courts. The other bill of Mr. Wickremanayake has got cabinet approval but is yet to be gazetted. Both bills will hinder the free propagation of the Gospel. All Christian social projects and humanitarian work can be considered inducement. Even some of our theological positions will be open to debate as misrepresentation of the religion. The words "Allurement", "fraudulent", "force" are very broadly defined in the Bill and any ministry activity can be falsely categorized under one or more of the above words.
Q. In your opinion, can this Bill be variously interpreted?
A. Yes, The bill is not straightforward and is open to wide interpretation. For example, under "force" -- the definition given is 'threat of religious displeasure' which could mean that Christians cannot preach judgment from God. "Allurement" -- includes all gifts, material benefits. This in fact seals the fate of all Christian humanitarian assistance.
Q. Is this Bill accommodative within the Sri Lankan Constitution?
A. It is definitely unconstitutional and contravenes Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) of the Constitution which guarantee every person the right to "freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice" and "the freedom of worship, observance, practice and teaching of his religion or belief; in private or in public; either by himself or in association with others."
Q. Does it violate any international laws or obligations?
A. It contravenes the International Covenant on Political and Civil rights, which was ratified by the Sri Lankan Government in 1980.
Q. Do you think the Church is ready to face the challenge of this Bill?
A. All sections of the Church have on principle united together to oppose the Bill.
Q. What steps has the NCEASL taken with regard to this Bill?
A. The NCEASL has been in the forefront of lobbying local and international agencies including the United Nations against this Bill. The NCEASL is also challenging the bill in courts. We have a Religious Liberty Secretariat and a Legal Department to handle this issue. Also NCEASL has assisted the attacked churches with emergency relief, medical aid, and other required assistance. NCEASL is also in the process of producing a documentary on religious liberty for Advocacy Purposes. All incidents of violence against Christians since 1987 have been systematically monitored and documented by us. The NCEAL leaders have continued to meet with the President, the Opposition Leader, Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament in lobbying our case.
Q. Do you see the current situation as one allowed by God?
A. This has indeed been a wake up call for the Church in Sri Lanka which is a fragmented and divided church. This religious liberty issue has brought the church together and also made us rethink our methods of mission, made us more culturally sensitive, accountable and responsible in the way we have gone about our ministry. God has permitted this situation in a way to purge and purify us.
Q. What has been done to create awareness and help your members face the current challenges?
A. We send out regular Situation Updates via email. We have also produced a leaflet on the implications of the Bill. Regionally, we conduct training programmes on how to prepare for the times ahead and also on how to prepare for persecution. We have brought together those under severe pressure and conducted camps. We have a training manual on how to face pressure and persecution. This is in SinhalA. We also have a four part training booklet on handling this issue. We publish two magazines -- one in Sinhala & one in English to educate our constituency on the issue. Recently we even brought together children of pastors who witnessed the attacks on their churches or homes for a Trauma Counseling Camp which was much appreciated by the Pastors. Next month we will be conducting a camp for all the persecuted Pastors and their spouses to come together and be encouraged and be ministered to.
Q. Have you had any dialogue with other national organizations with regard to this Bill? What was the outcome?
A. We have had dialogue with both secular and religious national organizations including Human Rights NGOs and other groups in addressing this issue. At this point of time naming them may not be prudent for our work together.
Q. Is the international community aware of what is happening here?
A. The international community has been briefed very extensively there is always room for advocacy on this issue. We have directly lobbied more than 30 countries. The issue of violence against churches was raised at the United Nations and the Sri Lankan representative had to give a reply. An early day motion was signed by 141 Members of Parliament from Britain. Also a fact finding team was sent from First Step Forum - a coalition of political leaders, Congressmen and Parliamentarians worldwide who are concerned for Human Rights. In Addition to this, representatives from six international Christian human rights agencies sent fact-finding teams to Sri Lanka.
Q. Are there any noticeable changes in approach to evangelism and missions among churches?
A. Some churches have completely stopped their social programmes due to every social project being viewed as allurement. It is their opinion that if either social concern or evangelism needs to be sacrificed, they would rather propagate than just be involved in social work. My firm belief is that whatever Bill is introduced, as Church in this country our allegiance is first to God and we should be faithful to the Biblical Mandate of Presence and Proclamation. Both Social Concern and Evangelism are part and parcel of Christian Mission and we should continue doing this - come what may. No one can tell us what Christian Mission should be nor set our agendA. No state can regulate the living out of our faith in the community. We should all be faithful to the Biblical Mandate whether in prison or out of prison.
Q. Three things that you would like to tell your membership?
A. (a). We will fight this Bill to the utmost with all the means within our reach.
(b).We will continue to be faithful to the Biblical Mandate of both Evangelism and Social Concern in this country, proclaiming the love of Christ and demonstrating this through our works and inviting people to come to faith in Christ.
(c). Even if the bill is passed, we will continue to do what we have done always, proclaiming and doing good. And press on unhindered being faithful to God rather than men, whatever the consequence may be.
Q. What would you like to say to those who support this Bill?
A. Firstly, do not continue to fragment our society more than what it is now. We are already fragmented racially. Do we need religious fragmentation as well? Secondly, respect the rights of each individual in this country and recognize that minorities too have rights. Fundamental rights are there to be enjoyed by all. There is a misconception that rights are given by a particular strong community to another weaker community. The majority is not the sole custodians of human rights that they could ration it out to minorities. Rights are there for both the majority and the minority to enjoy with responsibility. It is said " the greatness of a civilization is judged by the way it treats the least of its inhabitants."
Q. What do you think of the media coverage of this issue? Is it sufficient? Neutral? How should the media cover this issue?
A. The media in this country largely biased. Minority opinion whether it is religious or ethnic gets very little coverage. There are a few journalists and Newspapers who are independent but they too come under a lot of pressure in this country. Very few of our articles get published, even the right of reply is ignored. While churches were attacked we have called several media men and even TV stations to report and they have indicated they prefer not to get involved as it is a Religious issue.
Q. What, in your opinion, is the greatest need for our churches today?
A. For courageous, uncompromising, fearless statesman-like leadership. To rise above petty denomination concerns and agendas and speak for "the church" in Sri Lanka.