Buddhists have carried out a campaign against evangelicals and churches in Sri Lanka warning them to cease their religious activities in majority Buddhist villages.
Ravana Balaya, a radical Sinhalese Buddhist nationalist organization, visited more than 20 evangelical prayer services from July 15 to 19 in Polonnaruwa and told pastors to stop holding services and cease trying to convert Buddhists and Hindus, according to the Venerable Ittekande Saddhatissa Thero, General Secretary of Ravana Balaya.
“We have gotten hundreds of complaints from Buddhists and Hindus that evangelical pastors convert Buddhists to their religion and offer gifts and money to them,” he said. “If the evangelical churches fail to stop their mission, we will take legal action against their prayer centers.”
Thero said that 20 monks and Hindu priests were part of the campaign. “Some of the pastors agreed with us to remove their prayer centers from Buddhist villages, but some opposed the suggestion.”
In the past year, about 60 churches and evangelical prayer centers have been targeted. 120 had been attacked in 2013, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance (NCCA). “Many pastors have been beaten and threatened to halt their prayer meetings,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, General Secretary of NCCA. “People have logged complaints in police stations but it is very rare that culprits are identified,” he said. “Many of the mobs who have attacked prayer gatherings have been led by Buddhist monks,” said Yogarajah, adding that monks have faced no legal repercussions for these acts of violence.
The government launched a special police unit in April to address the rising religious tensions between Christians, Muslims and the Buddhist majority. Pastor O.S. Fernando, president of the Pastors’ Fellowship Group in Polonnruwa, denied allegations that evangelical groups had offered money or gifts to converts or potential converts. “We never convert by force [or] put up new houses to attract the faithful. It’s their own decision,” he said. At least some of the tension has resulted from misunderstandings. “While a pastor was putting up a new house, Buddhists monks had misunderstood that it was a new prayer center and so they lodged a complaint,” he said. “Over 150 people came with Buddhist monks to stop construction of the new building.” “Now the pastor has been given police security,” he said, but added that “many pastors fear to work in the area now.”
In two other incidents, Christians were taken to the hospital after sustaining injuries by a violent mob.
A pastor was knocked unconscious in a raid on his home on 12 May. His family and four other Christians were also attacked. In a meeting with the police about an incident when the four had been threatened for holding a prayer meeting in their home.
While waiting for the police, about 150 people surrounded the house and began shouting at them. 40 people broke through the security fence around the property; attacked the pastor’s van, forced their way into the house and attacking those inside.
When the police arrived ten minutes after the mob dispersed and took the Christians to the police station, held them for seven hours. No attempt was made to apprehend the offenders.
Christians filed a case against their attackers, and a magistrate subsequently reprimanded the police and ordered them to arrest the perpetrators.
In a separate incident, five monks and 20 youth stormed a prayer gathering at the home of a Christian family in Waththegama, Kandy district, on 15 May. Two strangers arrived and requested prayer, but was later found the mob had sent the pair as a set-up.
While a Christian was praying for them, the assailants burst in and attacked the Christians. They dragged the Christian to the Buddhist temple, and drenched her with water subjecting her to a verbal and physical assault. One attacker choked her, threatening to kill her and warning her not to return to the village. A case was later filed against her for unethical conversions.
The Constitution accords Buddhism the “foremost place” and commits the Government to protecting it, but does not recognize it as the state religion. The Constitution also provides for the right of members of other religious groups to freely practice their religious beliefs.
While the Government publicly endorses religious freedom, in practice, minorities such as Christians and Muslims are subjected to violence.
UN experts asked Sri Lankan government to take urgent steps to stop frequent racial and faith-based hatred and violence against Muslim and Christian communities by hardline Buddhist groups.
UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief Heiner Bielefeldt said.
“Impunity and inadequate response from the police and judicial authorities aimed at protecting the lives, physical security, the property and places of worship of these communities may encourage further attacks and a risk of spiralling violence.”
Special Rapporteur on minority issues, Rita Izsk said,
“The Government must end the violence and put in place urgent protective measures to ensure the personal security of all individuals belonging to religious minority communities living in the country.”
The Special Rapporteur on extra judicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, called on authorities to take urgent and firm measures to bring the perpetrators of killings to justice, and ensure the immediate adoption of robust protective measures.
Hate statements by Buddhist extremist groups have contributed to spread a climate of fear among Sinhala Buddhists, who constitute the majority population in Sri Lanka, and resentment towards minorities.