The pastors and Christians of the Central Province face discrimination in various forms because of their faith and ministry. There are demands for their churches to be registered, their children are denied admission to school and the law never seems to be on their side. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance Sri Lanka (NCEASL) has always supported the downtrodden Christians who are unfairly treated by the rest of their communities. Through its Religious Liberty Commission (RLC), the NCEASL continuously provides legal advice, support and encouragement for such discriminated Christians. Apart from this support, the RLC also conducts advocacy seminars on a regular basis with the aim of instructing pastors and ministry workers on their fundamental rights and steps towards redressing the issues they are faced with.
On 22 May 2018, the RLC conducted an advocacy seminar for the benefit of 40 pastors and ministry workers of the Kandy Pastors’ Fellowship at the Assembly of God Church in Kandy. The seminar consisted of four main sessions, namely, on the Land Development Ordinance, school admissions, documentation of incidents of persecution and a final session on the law and the Christian Church.
The first session which was conducted by Attorney-at-Law Shahin Hassan addressed several legal matters with regard to state land. This session touched on how to apply for state land, on the ownership and inheritance of land and on the 2008 Circular which calls for the registration of places of religious worship. Hassan went on to explain that this particular circular was discriminatory against minority religious groups. The participants were also informed that the RLC, through inquiries made with the help of the Right To Information Bill, had received confirmation from the Ministries of Buddhasasana and Christian Affairs that registration of religious places of worship are not required. It was explained that the response from the Ministry of Buddhasasana also said that the Circular of 2008 only applies to Buddhist places of worship. The participants received an opportunity to clarify certain legal matters pertaining to their church construction and on requesting for state land.
The session on issues related to school admission was equally informative. As several issues are reported from Kandy with regard to denial of school admission to Christian students, the session explained the categories under which children were admitted to public school and the quotas for religion in schools taken over by the government. The session also discussed practical issues in admitting Christian students to school, best practices to follow in seeking school admission, how to appeal in the event of rejection and steps to be taken if one’s child is denied admission to public school on the grounds of religion.
Following this, a session was conducted to create awareness on the importance of documentation as an advocacy tool. The session also explained how the RLC documents the incidents perpetrated against Christians and the information needed to document an incident.
The final session was on the law and the Christian Church and it focused on the legal provisions made by the Sri Lanka constitution towards the freedom of religion and belief of its citizens. The session also explained the recently introduced Right To Information (RTI) bill and how it could be practically used in obtaining information such as on which grounds a child was denied admittance to school. The session concluded with the discussion on a Christian’s responsibilities towards its neighbouring community and on practical remedies in avoiding situations of unpleasantness.
The 40 participants actively participated in the seminar, clarifying their doubts, raising questions regarding matters that concerned them and suggesting ways in which they could help one another in issues that affect them. The participants also received several material including handouts of all the sessions, leaflets on the freedom of religion and belief and booklets on the Right To Information Bill in Sinhala and Tamil.
Pastor Shantha who heads the Apostolic Christian Assembly goes beyond the duties of pastoring to her flock to minister to those in remote areas. “This seminar is very valuable for pastors in these areas” she said, explaining the issues they face in renting space for their lodging and ministry work. She also hopes to create wider awareness on the matters discussed at this seminar. Pastor Shantha is aware that in rural public schools, students are admitted according to an arbitrary quota system decided upon by the school board. With the help of the material she received at the seminar, Pastor Shantha hopes to inform the Christian families she ministers to on how to respond to issues arising with regard to school admission. “I will definitely use this knowledge to create awareness among others too. Thank you very much for conducting this programme.”
Pastor Jonathan Selvaretnam from the Methodist Church in Makanda, Kandy also found the session on school admission very useful. “I have been ministering in Kandy for the past 2 years and I notice that it is difficult for Christian students to get in to public schools” said Pastor Jonathan. He went on to explain that he is actively lobbying for admission for Christian students and that the information received from this advocacy seminar will be very useful. “I have decided that I will conduct a programme for parents who are preparing to admit their children to school next year” the pastor explained. “I will inform them on their rights and the relevant procedures. I am very happy to have participated in this programme. This is very useful for my ministry work too.”