Freedom of Conscience & Belief

Christians and Religious Freedom under fire

First published at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/04/21/opinion/christians-and-religious-freedom-under-fire on 21st April 2019

From February 3 to April 14 this year, across Sri Lanka, there has been some sort of disruption against a Christian worship service every Sunday – on 11 successive Sundays to be specific.

Christians in Sri Lanka suffer violations of their right to religion and belief regularly, but most incidents do not make it to the news – or even to the Twittersphere. But the attack on the Methodist Church Centre in Anuradhapura, last Sunday, which was also Palm Sunday, a day of religious significance for Christians, was widely reported because of the forthright personal testimony and determined efforts of the President of the Methodist Conference, Bishop Asiri Perera, who had experienced the attack first hand.

In the past two months, this same church centre had obscenities shouted and stones pelted at it. A Municipal Councillor and villagers had forcibly broken in and threatened the priest and worshippers with assault. The Sunday before the Palm Sunday attack, they had cancelled the service due to intense pressure about the legality of their premises and services.

Types of violations

The violations reported this year against Christians include forcible entry to places of worship while services were ongoing, disrupting services, damaging properties, throwing stones and gathering outside places of worship in a threatening manner. Those leading prayers, hosting prayer services and participants have been threatened and obscene language used against them. Among the more serious violations was an assault of two females in two different incidents, a death threat and a threat to burn a place of worship.

At least 15 police complaints have been filed, some dealing with several violations. In some cases, police had refused or been reluctant to take complaints, sometimes going to the extent of siding with the alleged perpetrators, mocking and admonishing victims. On some occasions, police had refused to take matters to courts, demanded that victims file private plaints, and even refused to offer protection.

The right to Religion or belief cannot be restricted under any circumstances in the Sri Lankan Constitution. But one of the most regular violations have been questioning the legality of Christian prayers and places of worship, by Government officials, police, bhikkus and ordinary persons, often demanding registration, authorisation or approval from an official. Only on a few occasions have the police insisted on the right to freedom of religion or belief of Christians.

Numbers

This year, at least 13 churches and one individual have been affected in nine districts, with about 35 incidents and about 70 violations. Some churches have been affected multiple times, with multiple violations, such as disrupting a service, assault, death threats, shouting obscenities and damage to property.

Such violations against Christians have occurred regularly in Sri Lanka over several years, under successive governments.

A report by Verite Research in 2014 reported that a state institution or public servant was recorded as the key perpetrator of religious violence against Christians in 175 incidents (18%) out of 972 incidents examined between 1994 and 2014. Many of these have been diligently documented for years by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka. 226 incidents of violence against Christians have been reported between January 2015 – June 2017 and 86 incidents in 2018. Many of the Christians under attack have been small rural Christian communities.

They have had little support from Churches which wield more political-social influence such as the Catholic Church, and various inter-religious bodies operating at local and national level. Though I have focused on the situation of Christians here, Muslims too have been under fire in Sri Lanka, with some of the harshest violence against them being concentrated within a few days in towns such as Aluthgama in 2014 and Digana in 2018. There have also been reports of violations against Hindus.

Way forward

Impunity has served as a licence for continued violence against religious minorities. Despite compelling evidence in some incidents, there has been a reluctance to use the existing legal framework to arrest and prosecute those responsible. Ironically, the ICCPR Act was recently used to imprison a writer and suppress free expression based on complaints by a Buddhist group that the writer has caused pain of mind to Buddhists and insulted Buddhism, but the same Act has not been used to arrest and prosecute those responsible for blatant and serious violations against Christians. Political will and legal action is essential to protect the rights of religious minorities.

Asserting rights sensitively would help, but it is unfair to expect victims to compromise and tolerate violations of their inalienable rights. Rather, the ‘good’ among the majorities, especially, Buddhists, must proactively protect the rights of religious minorities being persecuted and the more influential Christian churches must show support and solidarity to smaller and more vulnerable churches.

Unless and until all persons and communities, especially, the minorities and the vulnerable, can freely practise their religion without fear, religious harmony and co-existence will be a myth.

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Examples of violations against Christians in 2019

1. As a female pastor and worshippers were preparing for a Sunday worship service, a mob of around 200 led by some bhikkus had forcibly entered the church premises, demanded to stop the worship, threatened the worshippers in obscene language, and damaged furniture and roofing sheets. A bhikku had threatened the Christians with death if they refused to stop their worship. The mob had also dragged a female worshipper on to the street, threw her at the feet of the bhikkus, and beaten her, and she had to be hospitalised. Some of the bhikkus had lodged a complaint, claiming the pastor was breaching the peace. At an inquiry, the monks and villagers had demanded the pastor stop conducting her services and only engage in worship in private. The Officer-in Charge (OIC) had told the pastor to comply with the demands of the monks and said the police wouldn’t provide her with further protection.

2. While a Sunday worship service was ongoing, bhikkus and a group of youth had forcibly entered the place of worship, shouting in obscene language and threatened the worshippers. Later, the policemen in civil clothes had tried to compel the pastor to attend an inquiry within 15 minutes, despite the pastor’s request for adequate time to consult his lawyer.

3. While a Sunday worship service was ongoing, a bhikkus had stood outside taking pictures of the premises and later, a group of around 35 villagers had gathered and stoned the premises. They had forcibly entered the place of worship and demanded to stop the worship immediately and threatened to burn the building if they refused to comply. A few days later, the pastor’s residence was stoned by unidentified individuals. The Officer-in-Charge (OIC) of the police had refused the pastor’s request to refer the matter to court and told him to file a private plaint.

4. A pastor had received a copy of a letter addressed by a Divisional Secretary (DS) to the OIC of the local police, instructing the latter to stop Christian religious worship activities, claiming the place of worship was not registered with the DS. A few days later, while the Sunday service was ongoing, around 30 individuals, two police officers and the Grama Niladhari had questioned the pastor and told him to meet with the DS the following day. The DS had demanded the pastor stop his religious worship activities immediately and threatened to confiscate the pastor’s home (received through a tsunami resettlement scheme) if he refused to comply.

5. A group of 30 individuals had arrived at a place of worship and demanded to speak to the pastor, who was not there. Two individuals had then assaulted the female owner of the premises.

6. While a pastor and his wife were visiting a congregant’s home, a group of villagers had damaged the front door of the house and a cross hanging on it. The group had demanded to know about approval to carry out worship activities in the village and threatened the pastor. They had scolded the pastor’s wife in obscene language and attempted to assault the pastor. The police had been reluctant to take down the complaint.

7. Villagers had threatened a Christian not to invite a pastor to conduct bible studies in his home. Later, when he had gone to lodge another complaint to the police about threats to his life, he was arrested, based on a false allegation of assault. After he was released on bail, a government official had told him to stop having bible studies at his house.

Crippling civic organising, mobilising and resistance through Draft Amendment to the Act on NGOs

First published on 22nd March 2018 at http://groundviews.org/2018/03/22/crippling-civic-organising-mobilising-and-resistance-through-draft-ngo-act-amendment/

The author gratefully acknowledges insights and input from Attorney-at-law Ermiza Tegal.

On February 20, 2018, the Cabinet decided to publish the repressive Draft Act to Amend the Voluntary Social Service Organizations (Registration and Supervision) Act no. 31 of 1980 (LDO 32/2011) to a gazette and present it to Parliament for approval. As usual, the drafting has been done in secret with no consultations. To the best of my knowledge, the draft Act has not been made publicly available by the Government.[1]

In the face of mounting pressure and questions, today, more than a month after he had presented this draft Act to the Cabinet, Minister Mano Ganesan had belatedly committed to have a consultation with civil society on April 10, 2018 and assured that it won’t be gazettedpending observations at this consultation.[2] This is the same Minister who stated last year that he doesn’t “see any serious reason to regulate NGOs in this country” and that he doesn’t want to use the word, ‘Regulation’.[3]

The draft’s foremost stated purpose is “regulate, supervise & inspect” NGOs through a legalised “National Secretariat for NGOs (Hereafter referred to as the Secretariat)” under an unspecified Ministry. The Secretariat has investigative powers and assumes and duplicates functions of the Police. The extraordinary and excessive powers given to the Secretariat directly infringe on Freedom of Association, Freedom of expression, Freedom of Thought, Conscience & Belief and Right to Privacy. The draft gives the Director General of the Secretariat, the Minister in charge and the Ministry’s Secretary unprecedented control over any grouping defined as a NGO. It comes in the context of reporting and approval requirement currently in place for NGOs, having created a culture and expectations in the districts that NGOs have to be subservient to the local government officials.

Making collectives illegal and crippling independent civic organising and mobilising

The draft tries to capture a broad range of collectives or groups in it’s definition of an NGO[4]and compels them to register and obtain approval from the Secretariat for it’s existence, or become illegal. There are only very few exceptions.[5] This definition and compulsory registration and approval may bring under the Secretariat’s control or render illegal, groups promoting and protecting rights and interests of their members, formal and informal grouping of individuals, groups receiving funding or working voluntarily, movements that may be temporary or permanent and groups involved in initiatives of social entrepreneurship, public-private partnerships etc. It strikes at independent organising and mobilising initiatives and makes very vulnerable those campaigning on repealing or changing unjust laws, such as ones related to gender and sexuality and the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

Practically, if this draft is enacted, it may bring under its control or render illegal existing civic groups such as Purawesi Balaya (Citizens Power), National Movement for Just Society (NMJS), Lawyers for Democracy (LfD), Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF), Student Unions, Peoples Alliance for Right to Land (PARL), Peoples Movement against Port City, Women’s Action Network (WAN), movements of Relatives of Disappeared etc. One wonders whether groups such as the “Civil Monitoring Commission” initiated and led by Minister Mano Ganesan and others during the Rajapakse regime and “Mothers Front” led by Minister Mangala Samaraweera and others during Premadasa regime, as well as movements of the past such as Movement to Protect Eppawala Phospate Deposits, Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and Equality (MIRJE) and University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) would have been willing to subject themselves to such controls.

Arbitrary registration, suspensions, cancellations and limited possibilities of Appeal

Under this draft Act, registration (and thereby legality) is dependent on whims and fancies of the Director General of the Secretariat and Ministries or Authorities which are “responsible for activities planned to be undertaken by the organization”. If registration is rejected, the appeals have to be made to the Secretary to the Ministry, under which the Secretariat functions, within 30 days.

The registration can be suspended or canceled (and thereby make the organisation illegal) for range of reasons. These includes if the Director General feels the organization is a threat or prejudicial to national security or public interest. An organisation can also be de-registered if the Secretary to the Ministry feels the organisation is operating contrary to the national interests. None of these terms are clearly defined and only possible appeals are to Provincial High Courts, within the very short span of 30 days.

Attack on ideological and physical autonomy of civic groupings

The proposed Act implies civic groups must agree to “common development needs” of the country as defined by or agreeable to the government. This is likely to marginalise groups that are challenging the government’s model of development, which is often pro rich, pro-market and non-participatory. It also infringes on autonomy and internal policies and practices of civic groups, by interfering and retaining the final say in matters such as a change of objectives, a change in the geographical area of work, the establishment of branches, a change of the group constitution, cooperation with other groupings and the government, networking and forming federations, standards of service, financial and policy management, making donations to other groups, fund raising from the public, change of name, change of address, flag, symbol, logo etc. Information on staff and volunteers can be obtained by the Secretariat up to 6 years after they have left the organisation.

Policing powers beyond ordinary Police powers

In ordinary law, the police requires a warrant to enter a premises and search, examine books, registers or records, make copies and extracts. But the draft Act allows the Secretariat a free hand to do this, without even a clearly defined criteria for reasonable suspicion of any illegal activities. The power to “request and obtain information” implies a group from which the Secretariat “requests” information cannot refuse, as the Secretariat has powers to “obtain”, not just to “request”. The Secretariat also has powers to investigate money laundering and terrorist financing, which ought to be by the Police.

Breaching Banking Confidentiality

Under ordinary law, when the Police requires information from banks in the course of investigations of alleged crimes, they have to provide explicit justifications and orders for banks to release information are only made by a judicial authority. But the draft law confers powers to the Secretariat to breach confidentiality of banking information, without reference to any criminal conduct, rendering individuals and entities engaged in non-governmental activity second class citizens. The draft Act compels banks to inform the Secretariat of deposits over Rs. 1 million and electronic funds transfers and all transactions over an amount prescribed by the Minister. Such control over groups defined as NGOs is in contrast to the government’s policy to liberalise capital flow, under which the new foreign exchange law[6] permits undeclared money held abroad up to the value of a million dollars to be brought into the country with no penalty, while amounts in excess could be brought with the payment of a one percent fee. This puts in an additional layer of surveillance over and above what the Central Bank would be doing with regard to fund flows into the country, again singling out those defined as NGOs.

Broad and Vaguely defined “NGO crimes”

The draft Act creates range of “offences under the Act”, some of which are broadly and vaguely defined and leave room for abuse. Offences includes non-registration, which violates Freedom of Association and the principle of “Voluntary Notification”. Even a simple request for information if deemed inadequately responded to may attract a Rs. 250,000 fine or one year imprisonment and thus, is likely to create a fear psychosis. The lack of certainty runs contrary to the basic tenet of rule of law. Yet, again the hypocracy of criminalising acts that may be administratively corrected, is patently obvious when compared to the Foreign Exchange Act (FEA), which replaces the Exchange Control Act (note the change in nomenclature away from the notion of ‘control’), which was described as a new law that “decriminalised exchange control violations and freed citizens from its draconian provisions. The responsibility to implement the new management system has been vested on the authorised dealers who are subject to neither criminal nor civil proceedings under FEA. Instead, they are disciplined through an administrative process”[7].

Blurring the lines between “government” and “non-governmental”

This draft in letter and spirit, appears to convert NGOs into GONGOs – Government controlled Non-Government Organisations. It attempts to make a non-governmental group primarily accountable to the government – instead of primary accountability being to it’s members and to values they espouse, intended beneficiaries and donors – ignoring that the government is often the very body such groups seek a distinction from and often aim to monitor, critique and challenge.

Civic collectives and individuals involved in such groups must not be above the law – given that problems such as financial mismanagement, sexual harassment, gender based discrimination and abuse of worker’s rights, also occur in these entities, just las they do in government agencies and the private sector. But this must be done through ordinary law, which is applicable to all, without resorting to ultra-intrusive laws, discriminatory laws, which has the high potential to facilitate witch-hunts, to blur the line between what is “government” and what is “non-governmental / civic” and cripple independent organising and mobilising that a government may feel challenged by. Legal frameworks to address money laundering and other criminal activity must be uniformly applied instead of targeting NGOs in this disproportionate and unjustified way.

There is no point in trying to reform or engage with this draft law. It must be opposed in its entirety. If at all we need an additional law, it must be a “Freedom of Association Act” that promotes Freedom of Association, with registration based on principle of “Voluntary Notification” and not a restrictive law to make “non-governmental / civic” groupings pawns of the government.


[1] But drafts in three languages has been uploaded by concerned activists, and are available at https://drive.google.com/file/d/1HQJTYaXMBzrMFVkABruRnW53WdrwU8ES/view?usp=sharing(English), https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jlZw5mhi5hnHtDZfv-C6nGeeouU7834s/view?usp=sharing (Sinhala) and https://drive.google.com/file/d/1ngRI7i-R-RlglZxsFlykZZRM09lGQp1r/view?usp=sharing (Tamil)

[2] https://twitter.com/ManoGanesan/status/976728773386158080

[3] Statement by Minister Mano Ganesan on 1st July 2017

[4] Includes any association, council, society, trust, foundation, federation, movement, center, consortium, company, guarantee limited companies, private companies receiving foreign funds for non-profit oriented activities, any organization under any written law or incorporated under Standing Orders of the Parliament or any other association of persons, branches of overseas registered organizations,

[5] Examples of exceptions mentioned are places of religious worship, banks, public quoted companies, school development societies, alumni associations, trade unions, political parties and any such organizations

[6] Foreign Exchange Act No 12 of 2017

[7] Statement by Former Central Bank Deputy Governor W A Wijewardene as quoted in article titled ‘Exchange control will become obsolete – Economist’, Sunday Observer found at http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2017/12/03/exchange-control-will-become-obsolete-economist