Scrap the Religious Conversion Bill, Group Tells Thein Sein

By The Irrawaddy 16 June 2014

RANGOON — An ethnic Chin group is urging President Thein Sein to ensure the religious conversion bill does not get passed into law.

In a letter to the Burmese president on Saturday, the Institute of Chin Affairs (ICA), a nonprofit public policy forum for ethnic Chin people, said the bill violated international human rights standards and the country’s own Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion.

The bill, drafted by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, prevents people from converting to another faith without approval from government authorities. It also requires religious converts to be over the age of 18.

“The Constitution of Myanmar [Burma], though being cautious about possible abuses in religious freedom, puts no age limit on any citizen who wants to practice any religion of his or her choice. Imposing [an] age limit on a person wanting to change his or her religion also goes against international conventions and international human rights,” the ICA wrote in the letter.

If enacted, the bill would require would-be religious converts to undergo interviews with government officials, who would seek to determine whether he or she wanted to convert for appropriate reasons. Anyone deemed to be converting “with the intent of insulting or destroying religion” could face up to two years in prison. Those found to have pressured others to convert could be imprisoned for one year.

“Converting to a particular religion is absolutely at the sole discretion of the potential convert himself or herself. None but the convert himself or herself can make the ultimate decision on whether to believe in a particular faith because professing a religion is solely a spiritual and individual matter. No government authorities have the right to impose restrictions on anyone over their personal faith or belief,” the ICA wrote.

The group urged Thein Sein to “immediately and effectively take measures to prevent the bill from being passed into law,” and to ensure that discriminative bills are not proposed in Parliament in the future.

The majority of ethnic Chin people are Christian in Buddhist-majority Burma.

The government, which published a draft of the religious conversion bill in state media last month, is accepting public feedback about the bill until June 20.