By Bob Allen
Advocates for religious liberty view with alarm a new law recently passed by the parliament in Myanmar making it harder for a person to switch religions.
Human Rights Watch, an international non-governmental organization that monitors human rights, urged President Thein Sein of the country historically known as Burma not to sign a new Religious Conversion Bill, backed by the Buddhist majority in nation long bedeviled by sectarian violence.
The bill, one of four so-called “race and religion” laws heavily promoted by the Association for Protection of Race and Religion, a Buddhist nationalist group, would enable the state to regulate religious profession and conversion.
It would establish a Religious Conversion Scrutinizing and Registration Board in each township. Anyone over 18 wishing to change religion would file an application stating the reasons for conversion. The board implements a process to determine if the individual’s beliefs are sincere, and if approved the applicant would get a certificate of conversion.
Human Rights Watch said the law is incompatible with religious-freedom guarantees in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Burma’s own 2008 Constitution.
“Allowing local officials to regulate private faith so closely is a pathway to repression of religious freedom,” said Phil Robertson, director of HRW’s Asia division. “In their zeal to protect Buddhism, the authors of these laws are imperiling other religious minorities, including Christians, Hindus, and especially Burma’s persecuted Muslim minority.”
The law also prohibits converting with the intent to “insult, disrespect, destroy, or abuse a religion” and bars anyone from bullying or enticing another person to convert or deterring them from doing so. Penalties for breaking the law range from six months to two years in prison, depending on the violation.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom issued a statement terming the race and religion laws as “tools the government uses to continue to violate the freedom of religion and related human rights.”
“By word and deed, Burma’s government continues to further entrench and legalize discrimination based on religious beliefs and sex,” said Commission Chairman Robert P. George. “Burma’s leaders once again have disregarded internationally agreed human rights standards.”
“It is gravely wrong for the government to presume to dictate whether an individual can change their religion or belief,” said George, a law professor at Princeton University. “We call on President Thein Sein immediately to reject this ill-conceived measure.”
Last year the board of general ministries of the American Baptist Churches USA issued a statement expressing “strongest concerns” about the religious conversion law. “Its restrictions against the right to freely choose a religion violates internationally recognized fundamental human rights,” the statement said.
American Baptists have ties with Burmese Baptists dating back 200 years, when U.S. missionaries Adoniram and Ann Judson made converts there in the early 19th century. In recent decades those relations were interrupted by political strife but have been renewed in the last couple of years through both religious liberty gains in Burma and Burmese refugees seeking out Baptist churches after being relocated to the United States.