- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 12, 2009

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY

Members of Congress are calling on the ambassador of Sri Lanka to urge his government to defeat a bill that would criminalize attempts to convert citizens of the South Asian nation from one religion to another.

“We believe that this proposed legislation will harm, not protect, the freedom of religion of the Sri Lankan people,” 15 House Democrats and Republicans said in a letter to Ambassador Jaliya Chitran Wickramasuriya.

“This anti-conversion bill is over-broad and targets all religious conversions, not just ‘unethical conversions.’ ”

The bill, titled “Prohibition of Forcible Conversion,” is supported by the Buddhist National Heritage Party, which is a minor partner in the ruling coalition. The measure would impose fines up to $4,425 and prison terms of up to seven years for religious activists convicted of using “force, fraud or allurement” to convert others to their beliefs.

The Sri Lanka Constitution recognizes Buddhism, practiced by more than 70 percent of the population of about 20 million, as the “foremost” religion, but also guarantees religious liberty to other faiths.

“The right to worship as dictated by one’s conscience is a basic fundamental human right and one that is the foundation of any truly free society,” said Rep. Todd Akin, Missouri Republican, who organized the congressional letter with the help of the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

Former Sri Lankan Ambassador Bernard A.B. Goonetilleke last year predicted the bill would never “see the light of day,” after the measure was stalled in parliament in 2004. However, it resurfaced and is expected to pass sometime this month, according to a report in Sri Lanka from the Mission Network News (MNN), a global Christian media group.

Christian missionaries in Sri Lanka feel threatened by the proposed legislation.

“Our missionaries only want to share the love of Christ with the people of Sri Lanka,” K.P. Yohannan, president of the missionary group, Gospel for Asia, told MNN. “They are not forcing anyone to change their faith.”

The congressional letter was also signed by: Democratic Reps. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, Maurice D. Hinchey of New York, Rush D. Holt of New Jersey, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Michael E. McMahon of New York; and Republican Reps. Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama, Paul Broun of Georgia, Trent Franks of Arizona, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, Bob Inglis of South Carolina, Thaddeus McCotter of Michigan, John M. McHugh of New York, Joe Pitts of Pennsylvania and Frank R. Wolf of Virginia.

NEW CHAIRMAN

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel took over the chairmanship of the Atlantic Council of the United States on Wednesday, citing the need for the Washington-based think tank to tackle the “critical and complex global challenges” facing the Atlantic alliance.

“Whether the matter is Afghanistan and Pakistan, energy security and climate or dealing with a rising China and resurgent Russia, trans-Atlantic cooperation has never been more essential,” said the two-term Nebraska Republican who resigned his Senate seat last year.

Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser and chairman of the council’s International Advisory Board, praised Mr. Hagel’s “well-deserved reputation for supporting and advancing U.S. foreign policy interests without regard for partisan considerations.”

Mr. Hagel replaces retired Marine Gen. James L. Jones, now national security adviser to President Obama. Mr. Hagel, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, served on the Foreign Relations and Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs committees.

Call Embassy Row at 202/636-3297, fax 202/832-7278 or e-mail jmorrison@washingtontimes.com.

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