Narrative Report South Asia Legal Consultation – ‘Defending Religious Freedom’

Colombo, 17th – 20th July, 2018

The South Asia Legal Consultation titled ‘Defending Religious Freedom’ was held from the 17th to the 20th July, 2018 in Colombo, Sri Lanka. The Consultation saw the participation of 22 lawyers and academics (in the field of law) from the South Asian region. The countries represented were Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

The Consultation began with a welcome address by Godfrey Yogarajah, Deputy Secretary General, World Evangelical Alliance. Yogarajah encouraged the participants to introduce themselves and the work they are engaged in, with each other. Following this, Yamini Ravindran, Director, Religious Liberty Commission, Asian Evangelical Alliance, introduced the participants to the main objectives of the Consultation, namely:

1. To create awareness, identify common trends and challenges providing an opportunity for lawyers to collaborate in promoting religious freedom in South Asia;

2. To discuss and strategise on effective steps, which can be taken within the country, region and internationally, pertaining to defending and promoting religious freedom and, best practices to be followed when dealing with religious liberty violations and issues;

3. To establish a network of religious freedom advocates committed to promoting religious freedom in their respective countries and within the South Asian region.

The second day began with a time of devotions, led by Dr. Ivor Poobalan, Principal of the Colombo Theological Seminary. Dr. Poobalan led the participants to reflect on the question ‘Should we always submit to authority?’ Dr. Poobalan expounded on the biblical position on submitting to authority, juxtaposing Romans Chapter 13 and Revelations Chapter 13. He concluded by stating that Christians are entrusted with the responsibility of striking a balance between submitting to the state and one’s civic responsibility.

The second session for the day was on the topic ‘A vision for Religious Freedom’ conducted by Godfrey Yogarajah. Yogarajah, took the participants through the different terminology used and the meaning that each of them entail, such as Religious Liberty, Religious Freedom, Religious Tolerance, the difference between Patriotism and Nationalism and Secularism.

Yogarajah also cited historic evidence of Religious Freedom being present in ancient Asia, as well as the Biblical basis for Religious Freedom, and underscored the fact that key human rights instruments echo these biblical principles, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which states that all people are born free and equal. Yogarajah concluded with examples of where persecution can either lead to the growth or to the death of the church depending on discipleship and education of the church.

Following the tea break, Yamini Ravindran headed the discussion on Religious Liberty Trends in the South Asian Region. The key points highlighted were the decline in secularism, the emergence and spread of religious nationalism and religious extremism and the weak rule of law and culture of impunity.

However, a few positive instances of religious freedom being upheld have also been witnessed in the region, particularly, the progressive Judgment of the Pakistan Supreme Court, regarding the Peshawar church bombing which set out some recommendations that should be implemented by the state with regards to ensuring religious freedom.

Yamini also addressed restrictions on religious freedom imposed by the state, especially by way of restrictive laws, such as laws mandating registration of religious places of worship, blasphemy laws and anti-conversion laws. Further, Yamini highlighted the pivotal role played by social media and related laws in religious freedom, with special emphasis on online hate speech in the South Asian region.

The next session for the day was on an ‘Overview of Constitutional Safeguards on Religious Freedom’ in the South Asian region, and was conducted by Christine Richardson, Dean, of the Faculty of Law and Chairperson of the Department of Land, Management & Law of the Jagannath University.
Christine touched briefly on international instruments safeguarding freedom of religion, before going into detail with regards to the Constitutional recognition given to freedom of religion in the South Asian region. The session looked at the articles in the Constitution, that specifically provide for religious freedom.
Most of the South Asian Constitutions provided for the right to profess, practice and in certain Constitutions, the right to propagate religion, subject to factors such as public order, morality and health. Further, some of the Constitutions addressed issues pertaining to education and religion, such as the Indian Constitution which provided for the division between religion and state funded education, and the Pakistani Constitution, which set out the right to not study a religion that is not one’s own. Further, the Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldivian Constitutions explicitly lay out that Islam is the state religion, while the Sri Lankan Constitution states that foremost place should be given to Buddhism.
Following lunch, was a panel discussion on the topic “Rule of law and the Judiciary”. The panellists were: Ganesh Shreshtra, an advocate from Nepal, Kashif Alexander, an Advocate from Pakistan, Siju Thomas, a lawyer from India, Probhat Tudu, a lawyer practising in Bangladesh and Shalomi Daniel, an Attorney-at-law from Sri Lanka. The panel was moderated by Lakshan Dias, an Attorney-at-law from Sri Lanka.

This session focused mainly on judicial trends in the South Asian region, with regards to religious freedom. It was concluded that the situation in Nepal is such that while the judiciary is progressive in general, a stringent and literal approach is taken with regards to religious freedom with judges preferring to interpret the law with regards to religious freedom very strictly. This has resulted in convictions against Christians on the grounds of proselytization.
With regards to judicial response to religious freedom in Pakistan, a positive judgment in the recent past was the judgment with relation to the Peshawar Church bombing where the Supreme Court put forth certain recommendations to the state with regards to religious freedom. However, minorities face disadvantages when laws are interpreted and applied by the judiciary. For example, in a dispute between a Christian and Muslim, the Muslim law is applied to resolve the conflict, though one party to the case is a non-Muslim.
Anti-conversion laws in India have proved to be one of the most pressing concerns for religious freedom in India. While the law has been successfully challenged before the courts in certain cases, with the judiciary taking the stance that the anti-conversion laws are not constitutional and hence cannot be given the force of law, the laws have been enacted and are in force in six states in India currently. However, the panel discussion highlighted that judges are under political pressure when it comes to religious freedom cases, with Courts even being reluctant to grant bail to pregnant women who are parties in religious freedom cases.

The Sri Lanka situation has been such that the lower courts have shown a trend of pushing for settlements in matters pertaining to religious freedom violations or of considering the violations a breach of peace issue involving both parties, instead of focusing on the religious freedom angle of the cases. The Superior Courts have adopted a procedural approach when upholding religious freedom and a substantive approach when restricting religious freedom with the Courts taking cognizance of the Constitutional provision giving foremost place to Buddhism.

The last session for the day focused on European Union (EU) Mechanisms, with Roshan Lyman, Deputy Head, Political Trade and Communications Section from the EU Mission in Colombo, being the speaker. The session enlightened the participants on the June 2013 EU Guidelines on promotion of religious freedom and the appointment of an Envoy for religious freedom within the EU.

Lyman highlighted that the Generalized System of Preferences, (GSP) which is a preferential tariff system providing certain tax exemptions, can be used as a leverage to ensure basic human rights standards, and that the GSP plus system which is in operation in countries such as Sri Lanka and Pakistan in the South Asian region, provides tax concessions if the country abides by 27 Human Rights Conventions.

The third day of the Consultation began with a time of Devotions on the subject of ‘The Biblical basis for Advocacy’ led by Tanka Subendi, a Pastor in Nepal and Co-chairperson of the NCS.

This was followed by a panel discussion on the topic ‘Legal Challenges for religious freedom’. The panellists were: Ganesh Shreshtra, an advocate from Nepal, Kashif Alexander, an Advocate from Pakistan, Sanbha Rumong, a lawyer from India, Shubradev Tripura, a lawyer practising in Bangladesh, Timothy Dorji, head of the Bhutan Evangelical Alliance and Shalomi Daniel, an Attorney-at-law from Sri Lanka. The panel was moderated by Yamini Ravindran.

The session discussed the prevalence of anti-conversion laws in India, the Sri Lankan attempt at passing an anti-conversion law and the provision against conversion in the new Nepali Constitution. Further, the use of blasphemy laws in Pakistan discriminatorily against minorities and the lack of separate laws for Christians in family matters in Pakistan and Bangladesh were also discussed. Further, a Circular issued in 2008 in Sri Lanka, requiring registration of places of worship in Sri Lanka, which is used discriminatorily against religious minorities, and the application of neutral laws in a discriminatory manner against minorities in Sri Lanka were also highlighted.

Thereafter, Roshini Wickremesinhe, a lawyer and consultant engaged in religious freedom and human rights advocacy and research, provided an overview of hate speech in South Asia. The areas covered were, what constitutes hate speech, drawing the line between hate speech and freedom of expression, international treaties and conventions that deal with hate speech such as the ICCPR and CERD and the emerging use of hate speech on social media.

Following lunch, Dr. Dinesha Samararatne, a senior lecturer at the Faculty of Law, University of Colombo and Tahir Bashir, an advocate of the High Court in Pakistan, led the next session on the theme ‘Education and religion’. This session focused on what is education from a Christian perspective, grappled with questions such as should we segregate children when teaching them religion and is it important to teach religion in schools, and highlighted the discrimination in the education system in Pakistan such as the inclusion of biased and inciteful information against minorities, in the school curriculum.

The session on ‘Women and persecution’ was led by Advocate Ayesha Boota from Pakistan who spoke of the discrimination of women as a result of restrictive laws and conservative social practices and women persecuted on the grounds of faith as well as gender. She underscored the fact that the safety of women was at risk, while there was a lack of effective judicial and political response to the plight of women in Pakistan.

Thereafter, Daniel Singh, Chief Information Officer for the Barnabas Fund in India, spoke on Digital Security. He enlightened the participants on important and practical measures to ensure that the information and work carried out by the participants is safe and well protected. Singh touched on areas such as how to keep laptops, phones and information safe, the precautions that should be taken, best practices to ensure that information is safe and importance of having in place effective anti-virus and firewall.The final session for the day was on ‘Political trends in South Asia’ with Hon. M. A. Sumanthiran, President’s Counsel and Member of Parliament, leading this session. He spoke of the spread of nationalism across South Asia and the importance of lobbying with politicians to ensure minority rights.

During the discussion that followed his session, it was highlighted that nationalism is not tied to one political party in most instances, with India being cited as an example, where the party in power is not the sole nationalist party, with nationalist sentiments prevailing even in states where the governing party does not hold sway, due to the multiplicity of political parties and groups promoting nationalism.

The final day opened with devotions on the theme of ‘Being change makers in society’ with Timothy Dorji from Bhutan, leading the time of devotions.
This was followed by participants sharing their feedback and the lessons learnt during the course of the Consultation. Most of the participants agreed that the Consultation opened their eyes to the issues pertaining to religious freedom in South Asia, as many were only aware of the religious freedom related challenges in their own countries.

The Nepali delegation shared that the issues discussed during the Consultation will greatly help them in ensuring that minority religious groups are protected in Nepal.

The participants from Bhutan stated that the Consultation equipped them with valuable knowledge as to what can be done in instances of religious freedom violations, especially as they were not from a legal background, and that they were now aware of how they can lobby for religious freedom in Bhutan.
The Pakistan delegation stated that they were able to learn much about the region, that there were many fruitful conversations and that the lessons shared at the Consultation can be applied in their local contexts. Further, they opined that it was very important for human rights defenders to come together, and that this was an enriching learning experience, which should be continued in the future.

The Indian participants shared that they were able to learn much as well as reflect on many pressing issues during the course of the Consultation. They also highlighted the importance of such collaborations in the future to continue to support and equip each other.

The delegates from Bangladesh stated that they will be able to use the knowledge they have gained to help their local communities. They were grateful for the fruitful conversations and stated that they firmly believed that much can be achieved together. They added that they have also been motivated to conduct more research on these issues.

Following this session, the Consultation moved into the final component, with the participants forecasting trends that may develop over the next few years with regards to religious freedom in the South Asian region, such as the continued and widespread rise of nationalism, enacting of discriminatory laws against religious minorities and changes and uncertainties following national elections in the near future in countries such as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
Thereafter, possible measures that can be taken in order to address these issues were discussed, such as addressing common issues in the region collectively, sharing resource material, working with progressive civil society members in the local scene, and collectively lobbying internationally for religious freedom in the region.

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