Sri Lanka's Christians are expressing relief over the country's supreme court ruling this week. The justices ruled that certain significant clauses in the controversial anti-conversion bill are unconstitutional.

The court said the "Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill" needs a two-thirds majority in the Parliament and a national referendum to become law in its present form. Or it could become law with a simple majority if amended.

The court decision came as a blow to the all-Buddhist monks' political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), which has been campaigning to ban conversions to Christianity. The JHU introduced this bill in Parliament on July 21. JHU had contested April parliamentary elections, promising to bring an anti-conversion law, and won nine seats. The bill proposed about fines of U.S. $11,000 fine and imprisonment for up to seven years for violators.

Observers note that the bill has hit rock bottom and is unlikely to get a two-thirds majority in Parliament voting. They say it has the potential to divide Sri Lankan society, which is already scarred by ethnic divisions, along religious lines. And going through the additional referendum will make passing the bill almost impossible. If the JHU goes for amendments, the changes would almost render the bill toothless, observers say.

Twenty-two petitions by prominent Christians and Church organizations, including the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), were filed in the court challenging the bill's constitutional validity. The court, while making many recommendations, determined that two clauses were inconsistent with the constitution.

Roshini Wickremesinhe, legal officer with the NCEASL, said, "Christians are happy that the court has struck down certain controversial clauses in the bill as unconstitutional. The voting on the bill, if at all, will certainly take months now. We accept the supreme court determination."

However, some JHU leaders have reacted strongly to the court's decision and blamed U.S. Embassy officials in Colombo for blocking the bill.

In Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, conversions to Christianity are a sensitive issue. Buddhist nationalists claim that certain new churches, funded by American evangelical groups, are indulging in unethical conversions of poor Buddhists and Hindus in rural areas with the lure of money.

G.B. Kotakabeniya, assistant secretary, international affairs, of the JHU, said "We brought the bill to discourage the organized proselytizing and the fanatical practice of unethical conversions by Christians in the garb of NGOs [nongovernmental organizations]. There is a new phenomenon of conversions from Buddhists to Christianity by fraudulent means. Our party will study the ruling, but my personal view is that we should go for the simple majority."

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Christians have condemned unethical conversions but defend the right to religious freedom. All Christian denominations have strongly opposed the bill and fear it would be used to curb religious freedom and target Christians.

Christians constitute about 8 percent of this prominently Buddhist country's 19.7 million people; 70 percent are Buddhists, 12 percent Hindus, and 7 percent Muslims.

With evangelical Christians growing by more than 11 percent a year, according to Operation World, Christians have come under increased persecution—over 50 violent attacks were reported in the last six months. Some 146 Christian places of worship were forced to close down between December 2003 and March 2004.

In a tense climate of insecurity, many churches are treading with extreme caution despite the supreme court's respite.

Marius Peiris, secretary general, Catholic Bishop's Conference of Sri Lanka, said, "It is a very serious issue and we would like to comment only after studying it."

Said pastor David Deling, a member of NCEASL, "Now it is for them who brought the bill to decide whether they want to pursue it. We are watching and waiting as to what lies ahead."

Wickremesinhe said there is a mixed feeling among Christians. "The people are happy, but cautious at the same time," he said. "Happy, because the court has taken note and struck down the controversial clauses in the bill as unconstitutional. But they are also cautious as the bill is not out of the door yet."

Related Elsewhere:

More Christianity Today articles on the anti-conversion bill in Sri Lanka include:

Cracking Down on Conversions | Buddhist radicals push tough new laws. (Aug. 10, 2004)
Anti-Conversion Conspiracy | Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka step up violence against churches. (April 26, 2004)

Articles elsewhere on the anti-conversion bill in Sri Lanka include:

Lankan anti-conversion bill hits the rocks | Sri Lanka's controversial anti-conversion bill seems to have hit the rocks given the Supreme Court's critical observations and the distinct possibility of the mainstream political parties opting for a free, "conscience vote" in parliament (Hindustan Times, India, Aug. 18, 2004)
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Sri Lanka to outlaw religious conversions | Passes bill to prevent conversion by force, allurement or by fraudulent measure (Daily Times, Pakistan, Aug. 18, 2004)
Anti-Conversion Bill needs two-thirds majority | Speaker W. J. M. Lokubandara yesterday told Parliament that the Supreme Court has recommended that certain clauses of the Prohibition of Forcible Conversion of Religion Bill violate certain articles of the Constitution and that the Bill in its present form has to be passed by not less than a two thirds majority and approved by the people at a referendum (Daily News, Sri Lanka, Aug. 18, 2004)
Controversial Sri Lanka bill against religious conversion gets court nod | Sri Lanka's Supreme Court has approved a controversial bill seeking to outlaw "unethical" religious conversions in the Buddhist-majority island, the parliament was told (AFP, Aug. 17, 2004)
Church visited by Pope defies Sri Lanka's religious debate | Sri Lanka is a seat of conservative Buddhism, but a church here visited out of the blue by the Pope is standing out as a symbol of religious harmony amid a heated debate on conversions. (AFP, Aug. 3, 2004)

More Christianity Today articles on the church in Sri Lanka include:

Renewed Attacks on Christians | Christians continue to suffer in Sri Lanka. (Nov. 19, 2003)
The Joy of Suffering in Sri Lanka | How Christians thrive in the land where ethnic and religious strife is always just around the corner. (Sept. 29, 2003)
A Man of Peace | While other monks march against peace, this fierce-looking cleric seeks accord. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Being the Leaven | Why only a handful of Sri Lankan Christians wage peace via the difficult political process. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Indigenous and Evangelistic | Isolated from the infusion of foreign missionaries by Sri Lankan laws, the island's church knows that to survive, it must focus on evangelism. (Sept. 29, 2003)
Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka as Churches Look to New PM to Bring Peace | The island nation reels from an ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 64,000 lives since 1983 (Dec. 19, 2001)
The Hard-Won Lessons of Terror and Persecution | Overseas Christians reflect on painful experiences (Sept. 26, 2001)
Christians and Buddhists Build Bridges for Peace in Sri Lanka | Religious officials secret meeting with Tamil Tigers draws criticism (Mar. 7, 2001)
Sri Lanka to Investigate Attack on Evangelical Church | Buddhist fervor for tradition and anger at Christian evangelism boils over in church assault (Feb. 28, 2001)
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Christians Mediate for Peace | Sri Lanka churches try to reconcile Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. (Apr. 10, 2001)
Sri Lanka's Churches Pray for Peace as War Rages Around Jaffna | Country's Protestants to unify in prayer June 16. (June 5, 2000)
In Sri Lanka's No Man's Land, Churches Provide Some Hope for Refugees | Christians mobilize to help nearly a million left homeless by Tamil conflict (Apr. 18, 2000)
Sri Lanka's People Are Not Divided, Just the Politicians, says Archbishop | Churches call for peaceful end to Tamil fighting (Feb. 28, 2000)
Dispatch From Sri Lanka: Bombs Away | How Western military actions affect the work of the church (June 14, 1999)
Sri Lanka: A Light in Buddha's Shadow | "With no end in sight to the war, we persevere in seeking to be faithful to God." (Nov. 16, 1998)
Dalai Lama, Evangelical Leader Talk | The discussion focused on the persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhists (Aug. 10, 1998)
Assemblies of God Church Attacked | There has been a 230 percent increase in anti-Christian incidents on the island nation south of India in the past year (Feb. 9, 1998)