Offering Religious Harmony after Failing to Sell ‘Peace’

By Janaka Perera

The ‘Oslo Coalition on Freedom of Religion or Belief’ will hold a seminar on “Missionary Activities and Human Rights: Recommended Ground-rules for Missionary Activities” at Pallekele, Kandy on January 4-5.

The organisers say they hope to explore through inter-religious dialogue and study of ethics and principles of Human Rights how religion can be disseminated in a respectful way that do not violate the rights of others.

For this purpose 25 distinguished scholars and religious leaders with equal representation from Buddhism and Christianity have been invited.

At first glance the objectives of the seminar seem laudable. However the track record of the country in which the sponsors are based gives cause to be wary of what they are really aiming at. Their headquarters is the Norwegian Centre for Human Rights, University of Oslo, Norway.

It is no secret that Norway tried to sell a dubious peace to Sri Lanka though the majority of her citizens did not buy it. The Norwegian Government equated LTTE with all Tamils and never challenged the Tigers’ false claim that they were the sole and authentic representatives of the Tamil people. The peacemakers conveniently ignored the continuous violations of human rights by the separatist terrorists.

Lisa Golden of Norway’s Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO) is one of the Norwegian ‘peace pundits’ who talked of “War and Buddhism” in Sri Lanka giving indirectly the impression that a predominantly Buddhist country should not militarily deal with terrorism. She was therefore appreciative of the “Buddhist monks who have expressed support for the peace process” no matter to whose advantage the so-called peace process and ‘ceasefire agreement was initiated.

Now a local supporter of this failed peace process – ‘the National Peace
Council’ – is among the invitees to this seminar. It was the NPC which urged the government to ‘reach a negotiated settlement’ with the LTTE – which the FBI categorized as the world’s most ruthless terrorist group. It would therefore be interesting to see the contribution the NPC is planning to make to this seminar.

Other confirmed participants include the National Council Churches of Sri Lanka, Anglican Bishop Emeritus, Anglican Bishop of Colombo and the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

Buddhist representatives include Venerable. Dr. Kirinde, Assaji, Gangarama Viharaya, Attorney Prasantha Lal De Silva, Venerable Seevali, Venerable Akuretiye Nanda, Vice Rector, Vidyodaya Buddhist Academy, Professor Emeritus Premasiri Pahalawatte, Dr. Asanga Tilakaratne, University of Colombo, Venerable Medagama Dhammananda, Project Cooridnator, SUCCESS, Dr. L. Weerasinghe, President, SUCCESS and Dr. H.B. Jayasinghe, Advisor SUCCESS.

If the Norwegian organizers of the seminar sincerely and genuinely want the event to serve the intended purpose they need to discuss some serious issues causing religious friction not only Sri Lanka but also the entire region. Without dealing with them we cannot hope for true religious harmony in Sri Lanka. The first step is to recognize that the attempt to convert others to one’s own religion by whatever means possible is a mental sickness.

In this context the participants need to know that what some Christian Churches mean by Inter-religious dialogue is not the same non-Christians have in mind. Lets take for example an extract from the paper ' Ecclesia in Asia and the Challenges of Evangelization' prepared by Fr. Felix Wilfred, Madras University. According to him, from the Christian point of view “the real purpose of inter-religious dialogue is more than a way of fostering mutual knowledge and enrichment. It is a part of the Church’s evangelizing mission…. Christians bring to inter-religious dialogue the firm belief that the fullness of salvation comes from Christ alone and that the Church community to which they belong is the ordinary means of salvation (no. 31)."

How can such an attitude contribute to religious harmony?

There is also what is known as Friendship Evangelism. Two years ago these evangelists were a menace in Malaysia. In that country these zealots never target Muslims because they know that the Malaysian Government's tough Islamic law would have them arrested or banned altogether if such evangelization were to happen among Muslims. Apparently Hindus are considered a soft target. In Sri Lanka both Buddhists and Hindus are soft targets for aggressive Christian evangelists and proselytizers especially among poor communities.

In 2005 the Christian Science Monitor reported on a new breed of Christian groups whose activities came to light after the tsunami in 2004. Soon after the calamity they headed to Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia to distribute humanitarian aid along with Christian literature. This compelled, the U.S. National Council of Churches to issue a statement warning against the practice by "New Missionaries" of mixing evangelism and aid, "Often lacking sophistication about the lure of gifts and money, and wanting to be generous with their resources, they easily fall prey to the charge of using unethical means to evangelize. The CSM quotes a former Presbyterian pastor Bob Alter as saying that the problem with these new missionaries is their claim to “spread the light to those in darkness. That is mighty offensive stuff, when you're out to tear down another religion.”

‘Harvesting souls’ have been a lucrative business for this type of fanatics in Sri Lanka, India and other countries in Asia, in Africa and Latin America. It is this kind of threat that led Buddhist groups in Sri Lanka to propose the unethical conversions bill which is yet to be enforced.

If a person needs spiritual salvation he/she should have the freedom to make an independent decision on a religion instead being manipulated or induced to select a particular faith or belief. There are many Hindu, Buddhist and Jain missions in the West. But they never claim that theirs is the only path to salvation. They are not duty-bound to convert others.

Now let’s turn to Norway. Although Oslo was advocating multi-religious solutions to Sri Lanka her own Constitution demands that country’s head of State should be a Lutheran Christian and that all its officials should know Norwegian. In this context, is Norway for or against Buddhism being given a prominent position in the Sri Lankan constitution?

– Asian Tribune –


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