Burma’s draft religious conversion bill “unacceptable” – Christian group

June 12, 2014 by  
Filed under newsletter-asia

myanmarBurma, June 10, 2014: A controversial religious conversion bill in Burma (Myanmar) that will require people to seek permission from the authorities before changing religion has been condemned by Christians and human rights activists.

The draft text is part of a package of four bills designed to “protect race and religion” in the Buddhist-majority country where predominantly Christian ethnic minority groups, such as the Kachin and Karen, and ethnic Rohingya Muslims suffer discrimination and violence, often at the hands of the Burmese military.

The proposed legislation is in response to a petition presented to President Thein Sein last July by a group of Buddhist nationalist monks, the Organisation for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief, calling for curbs on religious conversion and interfaith marriage.

The government, which actively promotes Buddhism, says that the religious conversion bill is intended to prevent forced conversions. The draft says that forcing someone to convert would be punishable by a year in prison; insulting another religion would be punishable by between one and two years in prison.

The bill requires a person wishing to convert to register with and obtain permission from the local authorities; they would be questioned about their reasons for changing faiths and their request would be approved or rejected within 90 days.

Zaw Win Aung, joint chairman of the Christian Association Council in Mandalay, said: It is unacceptable for people to be required to ask permission if they want to convert to another religion… [The authorities] would take action if you convert to another religion without permission.

Rohingya Muslims have also expressed opposition to the bill. Leader Abu Tahay said: Burma has multiple religions and the country is moving toward democracy. If there are restrictions on religion, this will tarnish the image of democracy.

Similar laws are in force in several Indian states and while they are ostensibly intended to prevent religious conversions by “force”, “fraud” or “allurement”, they are often used to threaten legitimate evangelism by Christians. They have come about as a result of pressure from Hindu nationalists, who, like the Buddhist nationalist monks in Burma, are striving to make their country a religiously pure nation.

The laws disproportionately affect the Christian minority in India. Hindu militants use them to justify acts of violence against Christians, whom they falsely accuse of forcibly converting people, and to pressurise the police to arrest Christians involved in outreach.

There are concerns that if the “protection of race and religion” bills become law in Burma, Christians and other minorities would become even more vulnerable to violence, marginalisation and prosecution.

The other bills in the package are one that restricts interfaith marriage, one that bans polygamy and another with population control measures.

Citizens of Burma have the opportunity to comment on them before they are finalised and submitted to the president for approval by the end of the month.

The Organisation for the Protection of Race, Religion and Belief claims to have more than one million signatures in support of the bills, while few are willing to speak out against them, making their prospects of passing strong.

– barnabas team

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