Sri Lanka: Tackling unethical conversions

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 – EDITORIAL

Archbishop of Colombo Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith has taken up the cudgels against Christian fundamentalist groups who resort to unethical conversions via financial and other material inducements. His Eminence quite rightly pointed out that the prevailing economic hardships and the rising cost of living, etc. make it easy for people to be lured to the blandishments of these Christian fringe groups who are mushrooming with vast funds at their disposal.

The Cardinal said the Catholic Church has no connection to these various pastors and Christian sects. In recent times a number of people who call themselves pastors had emerged and they had been targeting senior artistes, sportsmen and business persons. It would not be a bad idea if the bank accounts of these so-called preachers are perused to ascertain their sources of income and other assets as suggested by the Cardinal. The Catholic Church is thousands of years old and they have a coherent organization and structure. To become a Catholic priest, an individual has to go through a rigorous and prescribed process putting in many years of study and training.

In the past few decades a bunch of people have also started preaching and these people are not part of any organization of the established Church. We do not know if they have had any training. Cardinal Ranjith is not the first person from the Catholic Church to express such views against the conduct of these fundamentalist groups. There had been others, notably Bishop Emeritus Oswald Gomis who was a vociferous critic of such segments. These preachers have led to a situation where even the established Church is being viewed with a jaundiced eye by practitioners of other faiths particularly Buddhists and Hindus who are allegedly being lured by material inducements offered to enter the fold of these sects or to use a term in common currency – subjected to unethical conversions.

The Cardinal also rightly stated that if this state of affairs were to continue there was bound to be friction between the followers of the established Church and those of other faiths, which, needless to say, could snowball into religious conflict. Not long ago there were frequent reports in the media of attacks carried out on these so-called preaching centres in villages and also in certain urban areas where the pastors concerned were manhandled. Mercifully such incidents are no longer in the news, but the worst fears of the Cardinal could be realized if things get out of hand. This is because Christian fundamentalist groups are continuing to mushroom at a rate with even ordinary homes being converted into ‘prayer centres’. Not just Buddhists, deep inroads are even made by these groups into the Catholic domain to snare away its followers through inducements which may also have prompted a concerned Cardinal to come out with his views.

The development also could impinge on the current efforts now being made to forge religious unity among all, particularly after the Easter Sunday tragedy that saw a deep alienation of the population on religious lines. His Eminence could also have had in mind the rallying support he received and the sympathy extended by members of the Buddhist clergy as one during the hour of peril to his flock and certainly would have wanted no misunderstanding to spoil the confidence built with Buddhists as a whole by setting the record straight as to the identity of the real culprits behind the unethical conversions, by taking pains to explain that Catholics had no hand in it. It is time that this whole issue of Christian fundamentalism is addressed by the established Church itself. The issue cannot be resolved by enacting laws banning conversions to another religion which is against democracy. The Catholic Church should also play a more pro-active role in protecting its flock from straying from the path. It ought to look more closely at means of alleviating poverty among the Catholics. Where these fundamentalist operators succeed is by tackling the core of the problem. There is also lively engagement of the audience in their preaching sessions which makes them attractive. Catholic services in the Churches should also strive to match this enthusiasm instead of the strict solemnity observed in most Services.

Be that as it may, every effort should be made to remove all impediments that stand in the way of religious unity. True, religious tolerance is a fundamental feature in a true democracy. But care should be taken not to cross certain borders that are bound to ignite tensions in a highly pluralistic society. Equally, issues pertaining to Christian fundamentalist sects, as unraveled by the Cardinal, should not be a cause for an open confrontation between groups. As mentioned, the country can well do without such diversions at a time it is neck deep in problems including the deadly pandemic now sweeping the nation. Ideally, all sides should come together in a healthy discussion to sort the problems and iron out differences. The last thing this country needs is a religious conflict.


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