Michael Hertzberg defends his doctoral dissertation The Anti-Conversion Bill: Political Buddhism, ‘Unethical Conversions’ and Religious Freedom in Sri Lanka on 26 February.

His thesis focuses on a law proposal in Sri Lanka in 2004 in which the political party Jathika Hela Urumaya proposed to impose regulations on unethical proselytism. The Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya claimed that several Christian missionaries used unehtical means when trying to convert people, such as offering money or jobs. Christian missionaries claimed that this was a marginal phenomenon. The law proposal points to the dilemma of religious freedom and proselytism. What is ok, and what is not ok in your efforts to convert people to a different religion? How can one draw the line between legitimate and illegitimate means?

Hertzberg has studied the political process surrounding the law proposal and found that neither Buddhists nor Christians were interested in any debate about where to draw the line. Both parties claimed that their religious freedom was under threat. According to nationalist Buddhists, attacks on and vandalisation of churches was nothing but spontaneous resistance against missionaries who were out of bounds. Evangelical Christians argued that the attacks as well as the law proposal were part of a bigger scheme to discriminate Christians in Sri Lanka. The law proposal was strongly opposed and never adopted by Parliament. But similar law proposals have been adopted in several other countries. One of them is India.There is a strong resistance and opposition towards proselytism and conversion in several South Asian countries.

If the international society fails to recognise the problematic aspects of proselytism, nationalist movements and movements opposing proselytism will have fertile ground in developing countries, says Hertzberg.

Trial lecture: 25 February, 16:30. Auditorium B, Sydneshaugen skole, Sydnesplassen 9.

Public defence: 26 February, 9:30, Auditorium B, Sydneshaugen skole, Sydnesplassen 9.