Are Religious Conversions taking place in Sri Lanka?

Muttukrishna Sarvananthan (Daily News)

The phenomenal rise in the share of Islamic population in Sri Lanka is not due to conversions (of people from other faiths to Islam) but due to significantly higher birth rate within the Muslim community as a result of relatively lower educational level of women, early marriages, etc. Similarly, the significant drop in the share of Hindu population in the country is largely due to conflict-induced migration of Hindus to various parts of the world, especially to Europe and North America since 1983.*

The ascendance of polarising faith-based organisations, ostensibly to protect their respective religions from poaching by other religions, in Sri Lanka after the end of the civil war in May 2009 adds to the complexity of peace building and nation building. The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force in English) in Sri Lanka was established in 2012 following the footsteps of the anti-Muslim campaign of the 969 movement in Myanmar. The founder of the 969 movement, Ashin Wirathu, visited Sri Lanka on the invitation of the BBS in 2014; the BBS was close to the then President Rajapaksa who is suspected to have instigated its establishment.

The Siva Senai (Shiva’s Force in English) was established in October 2016 following the footsteps of Shiv Sena of Mumbai / Maharashtra in India.Though Siva Senai denies any formal affiliation to Shiv Sena, the choice of a similar name for the new organisation in Sri Lanka casts doubt on such denial. In the same way as Shiv Sena doubles-up as a Hindu cum Marathi nationalist organisation, the Siva Senai also appears to be a Hindu cum Tamil nationalist organisation. The founder of the Siva Senai had told the The Hindu and New Indian Express newspapers of India that they are concerned about “Sinhala-Buddhist colonisation” and religious “conversion” taking place in the country.The key objective of both the BBS and Siva Senai faith-based organisations is to clamour for the enactment of an anti-conversion law in Sri Lanka.

The common complaint or grievance of both the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and Siva Senai (SS) is that Buddhists and Hindus are being converted to Christianity through material and spiritual inducements. It has been alleged that the mushrooming of western-funded Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) in Sri Lanka during the course of the civil war has intensified such religious conversions both in the conflict-affected Eastern and Northern Provinces as well as elsewhere. The BBS also carries-out a hate campaign against the people of Islamic faith due to their relatively higher birth rate, among other reasons. While the birth rates of Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu Sri Lankans have declined to the levels of developed countries in the past three decades, the birth rate of Sri Lankans following the Islamic faith remains significantly higher. The BBS has instigated violence against Muslims in Aluthgama town in June 2014, which resulted in the death of two young Muslim men and burning down of an up-market clothing store owned by a Muslim in Panadura and was probably behind scores of attacks on Churches and Mosques in various parts of the country.

However, the BBS has negligible public support among the Buddhist population in the country. The BBS is a registered political party, which contested the parliamentary elections in few districts in August 2015 and secured just 135 votes in the Colombo District (if I remember correctly). This should be a lesson to the Siva Senai if at all it has any political aspirations in the future.

Religious conversion comparisons

The objective of this article is to find out whether there have been religious conversions taking place in Sri Lanka during the course of the civil war. There are four major religions practiced in Sri Lanka, viz. Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam (in alphabetical order).

After the Census of 1981, the latest Census of 2012 was the only one which covered the entire country. Between 1981 and 2012, Census could not be undertaken in all parts of the country due to the civil wars in the southern as well as the eastern and northern parts of the country. The 1991 Census was cancelled by the then government because the country was undergoing two insurgencies during the 1980s; the southern insurgency between 1987 and 1989 and the eastern and northern insurgency from 1983 onwards. The 2001 Census was undertaken in seventeen out of twenty-five districts, except the eight districts in the Eastern and Northern Provinces. Therefore, after 1981, only the 2012 Census has comparable data for the entire country. It is important to be aware that the Census 2012 was in fact undertaken only in March 2013 because of printing errors in the original Census form; probably because of other political reason/s as well.

The growth rate of the population following the Islamic faith in the country has been the highest between 1981 and 2012, followed by Buddhists, Christians, and the Hindus in descending order. The growth rate of the Buddhist population was 38.72% from 10,288,328 in 1981 to 14,272,056 in 2012; the growth rate of Christian population was 37.29% from 1,130,567 in 1981 to 1,552,161 in 2012; the growth rate of Hindu population was just 11.47% from 2,297,806 in 1981 to 2,561,299 in 2012; and the growth rate of Islamic population was the highest 75.41% from 1,121,715 in 1981 to 1,967,523 in 2012.

Island-wide, while the share of the Buddhists in the total population has increased marginally and the share of the Islamic population has increased significantly, the share of the Christians (Roman Catholics plus other Christians) has remained static and the share of the Hindus in the total population has declined significantly between 1981 and 2012. The share of people of Buddhist faith in the total population increased marginally from 69.30% in 1981 to 70.10% in 2012; the share of people of Christian faith(s) increased negligibly from 7.61% in 1981 to 7.62% in 2012; the share of people of Hindu faith declined significantly from 15.48% in 1981 to 12.58% in 2012; and the share of people of Islamic faith increased significantly from 7.56% in 1981 to 9.66% in 2012.

Historically, people from Buddhist and Hindu faiths have converted to various Christian faiths from the time of the Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka beginning in 1505, either out of their own choice (due to marriage, for example) or as a result of material and/or spiritual inducements by different churches. In the post-1977 period relatively lesser number of Buddhists and Hindus have also converted to Islamic faith either out of their own choice (due to marriage, for example) or in order to migrate for employment in the Middle-Eastern countries, which prefer people of Islamic faith over people of other faiths.

Intra-faith conversions

In addition to the foregoing inter-faith conversions, there are also intra-faith conversions taking place within the people of Christian faiths. For example, a growing number of Catholics are converting to Evangelical Christianity, which is a worldwide phenomenon. For example, while the growth rate of the Roman Catholic (RC) population in Sri Lanka was just 23.20% between 1981 and 2012, the growth rate of non-RC population was 172.30% during the same period; whereas the RC population increased from 1,023,713 in 1981 to 1,261,194 in 2012, the non-RC population increased from 106,854 in 1981 to 290,967 in 2012.

As a corollary, the share of Roman Catholics out of the total Christian population in Sri Lanka declined from 90.55% in 1981 to 81.25% in 2012. In contrast, the share of other Christian denominations doubled from 9.45% in 1981 to 18.75% in 2012.

The foregoing population data reveals that, nationally there is no evidence of religious conversions taking place in Sri Lanka. Because, if there was any considerable religious conversions taking place nationally, the share of the Christian population (RC plus non-RC) in the total population should have increased, which was not the case. However, there is evidence of intra-faith conversions taking place within the Christian population.

To the best of knowledge of this author, the phenomenal rise in the share of Islamic population in Sri Lanka is not due to conversions (of people from other faiths to Islam) but due to significantly higher birth rate within the Muslim community as a result of relatively lower educational level of women, early marriages, etc. Similarly, the significant drop in the share of Hindu population in the country is largely due to conflict-induced migration of Hindus to various parts of the world, especially to Europe and North America since 1983.*

However, at the district-level there is evidence of religious conversions taking place in certain districts of the country. For example, in the Nuwara Eliya District (Central Province), while the Buddhist and Hindu populations increased by only 10.75% and 19.63% respectively between 1981 and 2012, the Christian population increased by 45.38% (even higher than the growth of Islamic population– 41.70% – in the same district) during the same time. (Table 1) This highest growth rate of Christians in the Nuwara Eliya District could be attributed to religious conversions. While the growth of Catholic population was only 17.95% (from 28,382 in 1981 to 33,476 in 2012) in Nuwara Eliya, the growth of non-RC Christian population was 191.94% (from just 5,312 in 1981 to 15,508 in 2012), which indicates that the conversions (if any) of Buddhist and Hindus were to non-Catholic Christianity. (See Table 2) The higher growth rate of the Christian population in Nuwara Eliya could be also due to higher birth rate among the Christians.

In the Eastern Province, Batticaloa and Trincomalee districts could have had religious conversions between 1981 and 2012. For example, the Buddhist population in the Batticaloa District declined by 31.18% from 9,127 in 1981 to 6,281 in 2012. (Table 1) To the best of the knowledge of this author, the foregoing decline is largely due to migration of Buddhists to other districts as a result of insecurity emanating from the raging civil war and not due to conversion of Buddhists. On the other hand, while the growth of the Hindu population in Batticaloa was 54.87% between 1981 and 2012, the growth of the Christian population was 101.23% during the same period (Table 1), which indicates that conversions may have taken place.The higher growth-rate of the Christian population vis-à-vis the growth of population of other faiths (including the growth of Islamic population which was 70.11%) in Batticaloa district between 1981 and 2012 could also be due to higher birth rate among the Christian population there.

In the Trincomalee District, while the growth rates of Buddhist and Hindu populations were 20.27% and 21.77% respectively between 1981 and 2012, the growth of the Christian population was 42.89%, which indicates that religious conversions may have taken place. The foregoing conclusion is strengthened by the fact that, in both Batticaloa and Trincomalee Districts,while the growth of the Catholic population was just 24.11% and 1.33% respectively, the growth of the non-Catholic Christian population was 501.66% and 507.34% respectively between 1981 and 2012. (Table 2) The foregoing growth rates also indicate that intra-faith conversion from Catholicism to non-Catholicism is rife in Batticaloa and Trincomalee. In fact, in Batticaloa District, the Catholic (24,454) and non-Catholic (22,833) Christian populations were nearly equal in 2012.

No significant increase in conversions

In the Northern Province, whilst the Buddhist population declined significantly in the combined district of Jaffna and Kilinochchi and in Mannar Districts between 1981 and 2012, it soared in Mullaithivu district during the same period. The Buddhist population in the combined Jaffna-Kilinochchi District declined from 5,104 in 1981 to 3,443 in 2012; denoting (-) 32.54%. Similarly, in Mannar the Buddhist population shrunk from 3,363 in 1981 to 1,809 in 2012; denoting (-) 46.21%. In contrast, Mullaithivu District experienced phenomenal growth of the Buddhist population from just 1,060 in 1981 to 8,185 in 2012; denoting a rise of 672.17%. (Table 1) However, this was not due to religious conversions; rather it was due to intense colonisation of Buddhists in the Weli Oya Divisional Secretariat area adjoining the Trincomalee district, spearheaded by the Sri Lanka Army.

The growth of the Christian population in Vavuniya District by 224.38% from 7,338 in 1981 to 23,803 in 2012 indicates inter-religious and intra-religious conversions. (See Tables 1 and 2) Whilst the Hindu population declined by (-)18.35% in the combined Jaffna-Kilinochchi District and by (-)16.82% in the Mannar District between 1981 and 2012, it increased by 82.09% in Vavuniya District. (Table 1) Whilst the decline of Hindu population in Jaffna-Kilinochchi and Mannar is due to migration of Hindus to other parts of the country as well as abroad, the rise in Hindu population in Vavuniya District is due to migration of Hindus from Jaffna-Kilinochchi to Vavuniya. The Islamic population also declined in Jaffna-Kilinochchi (-79.37%), Mannar (-43.48%), and Mullaithivu (-50.38%) Districts between 1981 and 2012 due to forcible eviction of them by the LTTE in 1990. (See Table 1)

All three districts in the Southern Province is the home to largest concentration of Buddhist population in Sri Lanka; in Galle the Buddhists accounted for 93.92% of the total district population in 2012; Buddhists accounted for 96.74% of the total district population in 2012 in Hambantota; and Matara District population in 2012 was 94.14% Buddhist. In addition to the foregoing three southern districts, Moneragala had the second largest concentration of Buddhists (94.61 in 2012) in the country. Moreover, all three southern districts had the lowest shares of Christian population in the country; viz. only 0.92% of the district population in Galle was Christian; 0.47% in Hambantota; and 0.69% in Matara.

However, while the Buddhist population in all three districts had modest growth rates between 1981 and 2012, the Christian population experienced 295.39% growth in Hambantota, 98.31% growth in Matara, and 93.13% growth in Galle between 1981 and 2012.

All three districts in the Southern Province are outlier districts out of the total twenty five districts in the country, according to the Census 2012, by the fact that the non-Roman Catholic (RC) Christian community in each district outnumbers the Roman Catholic Christian community in the respective districts. Whilst the non-RC people accounted for 28.82%, 24.30%, and 28.76% of the total district Christian population in Galle, Hambantota, and Matara respectively in 1981, the share of non-RC Christians spectacularly shot-up to 54.62%, 59.77%, and 56.88% respectively in 2012.

The foregoing data reveals that the three southern districts experienced the greatest intra-faith conversions in Sri Lanka between 1981 and 2012.

The highlights of the foregoing statistical data are:

1. Three southern districts are unique in two different respects: (a) The highest concentration of Buddhist population is in the southern districts – Hambantota, Moneragala (Uva Province), Matara, and Galle in descending order. (b) The non-RC Christians outnumber Roman Catholics only in the three southern districts (Galle, Hambantota, and Matara) out of the twenty-five districts in the country.

2. The Northern Province has the largest share of Christian population (19.6%) out of its total population and the Southern Province has the lowest share of Christians (0.73) among the nine provinces in the country.

3. The Islamic population is set to become the second largest religious group (after Buddhists) in the country by the next Census or soon thereafter.

Policy Options

The statistical data presented in this op-ed reveals that there is little evidence of inter-faith conversions taking place in Sri Lanka. The intra-faith conversions within the Christian communities are relatively more than inter-faith conversions between Buddhist, Christian, and Hindu communities in few districts of the country. Although in a number of districts of the country there is indication of probable inter-faith conversions taking place, they are not considerable to warrant any anxiety among religious groups. More importantly whatever little conversions taking place appear to be consensual and do not appear to be coercive and therefore should not be regulated by law. In short, a mountain is made out of a molehill for partisan political purposes!

1.The Buddhist and Hindu religious authorities should reform their respective religious practices in order to be inclusive from their current hierarchical and exclusionist practices, especially in terms of caste divisions. The Buddhist and Hindu religious authorities should reform their own religious practices instead of accusing other religion/s of poaching.

2.The policy response to the highest birth rates among the Muslim population should be to improve the educational level of the Muslim population, especially women, right across the country and prohibit child marriages taking place in the Muslim community, which are legally permitted by the Muslim Personal Law (a customary law).

*The average number of children the Muslims in the urban areas and educated Muslims in the rural areas have is between and 3.  TW strongly believes this is the pattern in terms of the other communities (Buddhist, Hindu and Christian of all denominations), too.  It could be scientifically proved if an honest study/research is carried out in three selected towns and three remote villages.  
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