A tropical island off southern India, Ceylon gained independence from Britain in 1948 and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972. The country suffered over 25 years of civil war between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the mainly Hindu minority Tamils, ending in 2009 when the government crushed the Tamil Tiger separatists.
Sri Lanka is a secular state, but the Constitution states: “The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana [teachings of the Buddha].” The Constitution guarantees freedom for other religions, but in practice followers of minority religions face discrimination. Hindus comprise about 12% of the population, Muslims 9% and Christians 8%.
Christianity, introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century, is considered to be a foreign religion. Militant Buddhism is the main source of persecution, with Buddhist monks often inciting their followers to attack Christians and churches and also to attack Muslim businesses and mosques. Attacks are often carried out by large mobs, and most go unpunished. Non-traditional churches and converts from Buddhism face the most persecution.
Since the 1980s, the growth of evangelical Christianity has met with persecution including burning of church buildings, personal attacks and death threats. Many pastors have been beaten, threatened and arrested.
Persecution since 2012
Persecution of Christians began to escalate in recent years, especially since 2012, with the rise of militant Buddhist nationalist groups. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka mapped 320 cases of Christian persecution across Sri Lanka between January 2013 and June 2016. These included mob attacks on churches, state-sanctioned church closures, personal attacks, arson, vandalism, intimidation and discrimination (notably in relation to burials).
Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) or “Buddhist Power Force” is believed to be behind most incidents of violence against minorities in Sri Lanka. The BBS is a Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organisation formed in Colombo in July 2012 when Buddhist monks broke away from the Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage) party, which had been founded by monks, saying it was not sufficiently militant in protecting Buddhism. The BBS has organised campaigns against Christian and Muslim communities.
Christians in Sri Lanka hoped to see a change for the better when President Maithripala Sirisena took office in January 2015 (President Sirisena is more tolerant of minorities than his predecessor, President Mahinda Rajapaksa) but incidents of persecution continue. The image shows a church building destroyed by a Buddhist mob in January 2017.
A religious liberties lawyer in Sri Lanka who spoke to Christian Today on condition of anonymity said that in just over a year from the new government taking office her organisation had documented more than 120 incidents against Christians, including churches and prayer groups being forced to close, Christian burials being prevented and violent attacks. The lawyer claimed that under the new government Buddhist extremists have adopted a more strategic approach, in the form of legal restrictions, and she noted an increase in persecution carried out by local government officials.
Militant Buddhists are pressing for a ban on missionary groups and the introduction of an anti-conversion law. For years, Parliament has been discussing legislation to ban so-called “forcible conversions” – given the impact of anti-conversion laws in other countries, Sri Lankan Christians fear that such laws would be misused and lead to increased persecution.
A circular introduced by the last government in 2008 requires places of worship to be registered, although there is no legal basis for registration. The directive is used not only on new buildings but on places where Christians have met for many years. Many “unregistered” churches have been closed.
(BBC, Christian Today, Church in Chains Global Guide, Constitution of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka (2015), National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, Open Doors World Watch List, Release International, World Watch Monitor)
On 5 January a mob led by a Buddhist monk destroyed a church building in northwest Sri Lanka.
On 12 January 2014, mobs led by Buddhist monks attacked two churches during Sunday morning worship services.
Fresh attempts are being made to introduce an anti-conversion bill in Sri Lanka. The last bill was judged unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in December 2004 – just before the Asian tsunami devastated the coastal regions.
The new bill is at the committee stage where Godfrey Yogarajah (pictured) has led submissions from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) opposing the bill.
The religious situation in Sri Lanka continues to worsen and seems to be heading towards a serious confrontation between the Buddhist religious establishment, the Sri Lankan government, the NGOs and the Church. Buddhist monks, through their recently formed Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party, are now contesting the 4 April elections.
Monks are protesting and campaigning against “the NGO mafia” and targeting groups such as World Vision. Churches and Christian workers are being harassed and violently attacked on an almost daily basis.
World Evangelical Alliance Goodwill Ambassador Johan Candelin, Finland, has recently concluded a one-week official visit to Sri Lanka and is deeply concerned about the ongoing attacks in the island. “The big question is this,” says Candelin, “is this just the tip of the iceberg or the iceberg itself? One hundred and forty-six places of worship have been closed down over the last four months, and as such, the world should really take a closer look at the growing trend of nationalistic Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Another very disturbing factor is that no one has been condemned for any of the attacks. That sends a signal that you can do this without any consequences.”
The list of attacks is too numerous to publish but the report below of 15th February gives an idea of what is currently happening:
On February 15th, three churches came under attack in one night. ‚ÄúThe Pastor of the Apostolic Church in Boraluwewa was warned that his church would be attacked,‚Äù said the spokesman. ‚ÄúThe police were notified, but they failed to provide protection, or to investigate the threats. That night, a crowd of about 100 people with two vehicles completely demolished the church and the staff living quarters and all their personal belongings were set on fire. Five people were later arrested.
‚ÄùThe same mob also attacked Gethsemane Church in Boraluwewa, demolishing their worship centre.
‚ÄùThe third incident took place in Kurundugaha Hathapma Anuruddhagama (Karandeniya), in Galle. A gang of 10 attacked the home where the Calvary Church worshipped, armed with five swords and a gun. The homeowner was attacked with a sword, but he escaped with minor injuries. His wife was trapped in the house and the intruders threatened to kill her if the worship service continued. The family informed the Elpitiya police the next day and asked for protection, but so for none has been provided.‚Äù