Legislation is not the best way to deal with religious conflicts and connected issues, said Dr. Joanella Morales [molecular and human geneticist] from the Foreign Affairs Office of the US Department of Religious Freedom of which John Hanford is the Ambassador at large.
She was speaking during the course of a discussion with reputed Buddhist leaders held at the Dharmavijaya Foundation recently. It is not the policy of the US to legislate on religious freedom, she said.
She was on a tour of South Asian countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. She would be meeting both secular and religious leaders, civil society and the press. She explained that the main responsibility of the Department of Religious Freedom is to share and implement religious freedom abroad and integrate that goal into the mainstream of US foreign policy.
The Department`s activities are focused on the advancement of religious freedom and every year it produces a report on religious freedom in the various countries. She explained that US policy is consistent, and despite some countries being allies of the US, they are on a list of countries in which violation of religious freedom takes place.
SRI LANKA is NOT on this list
These countries include China, Vietnam, Burma, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Eritrea etc.
What we promote is Human Rights, and Religious freedom is part of Human Rights and the Rule of law, she said. Dr. Morales was asked by one of the participants why she was visiting our country.
Dr. Morales: The US appreciates your country`s long tradition of Buddhism and religious harmony. We are here to look at religious issues as we are doing all over the world, and we promote religious freedom and rights according to each religion. We advocate that religious freedom be discussed and rights ensured. Our report provides information on what is happening in this sphere in various parts of the world.
In Sri Lanka we are concerned about the issue of religious conversions particularly the two bills which are due to be brought before Parliament. The attacks on the churches have to be discussed too, she said. It was at this point that she said that it was not US policy to deal with these issues through legislation.
One of the participants, Mr. Gamini Perera of the Dharmavijaya Foundation and Success inquired whether this was not interference with the sovereignty of our country. The reply was that it was unfair to call it interference. When asked what US policy was towards Sri Lanka in this matter, Dr. Morales said that it was religious freedom for everybody and not taking sides.
[Trade and Aid]
It was vehemently denied that neither the US government nor the US Embassy in Sri Lanka had made a statement expressing grave concern over moves to introduce legislation against religious conversions. It was reported that US Assistant Secretary of State, Christina Rocca had warned that pressure was building up and this could have adverse consequences on US aid and trade concessions to Sri Lanka.
Looking at aid is not the method, Dr. Morales said. Humanitarian aid is never tied to issues concerning religious freedom, she said. She said that such legislation could be open to abuse during implementation.
Manohara de Silva, attorney, explained that the Sri Lankan Supreme Court, which struck down some clauses of the bill, kept in line with the Greek case Kokkinakis vs Greece and was upheld by the European court. What is acceptable to a European court, should not be unacceptable to us, he said.
Dr. Morales wanted to know why Sri Lanka could not work towards religious harmony through an Inter Faith Council. Replying to this de Silva said:
`What is unacceptable is to say that there should be no law. Discussions could take place in the Inter-Faith Religious Council as proposed by the Buddhist Commission Report. But if discussions fail, where do we go from there? Would each party be free to do as they please? A law should be in place, so that in the final resort the party concerned could turn to it.`
Olcott Gunasekera explained the genesis of the Freedom of Religion Bill which was proposed by the government appointed Buddhist Commission. Alongside the Bill an Inter Faith Council is in the making. He also pointed out that when the findings of the Buddhist Commission were published, no Christian organization challenged it.
De Silva further emphasized that the bill did not violate any international law. If it did he urged that it should be pointed out to them. Buddhist leaders had requested this of many foreign delegates but there has been no response. While adverse comments have been made about the Freedom of Religion Bill, no specific articles violating international law had been pointed out
Buddhism, he said, enjoins its followers to respect all religions and show tolerance towards all. This bill is not final. Buddhists are willing to take up any issues, any concerns in the future, he said.
Dr. Anula Wijesundara and Ranjani Ratnapala expressed apprehensions and said that evangelism was a recent development and pastors went from door to door, particularly those of poor income groups, of people of lower intellect and of those in need in order to convert them.