The Government of Sri Lanka has for years faced intense pressure from militant Buddhists demanding a solution to the “problem” of a perceived growth in minority religions in this overwhelmingly Buddhist country. These militants have perpetrated over 300 attacks against religious minorities including church burnings (as pictured above) over the last four years, yet the Government of Sri Lanka has failed to prevent the violence or to prosecute the perpetrators. Even faith-based relief efforts have been targeted with violent attacks on NGOs such as World Vision.
The Government’s toleration of violence against religious minorities has encouraged radical Buddhists to reach farther and try to enshrine religious discrimination permanently through anti-conversion laws. This website was created as a resource to combat intolerance and support religious freedom in Sri Lanka.
Read our Frequently
March 25: The Washington Times published an opinion article March 15, 2008 by Roger Severino, Becket Fund’s legal counsel, on the Sri Lankan government’s failure to protect its religious minorities. The piece catalogs the recent increase in anti-Christian violence and Sri Lanka's violations of international law:
Although the government isn't lighting the torches, its indifference to violence, regime of legalized discrimination, and political exploitation of religious tensions has undoubtedly fanned the flames.
The international community has not looked kindly on Sri Lanka's actions. According to a Dec. 12, 2005, report from the U.N.'s Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, the government's politicized handling of the issue of conversions "provided more justification for religious intolerance." Only a concerted international outcry stopped the passage of the government's misguided criminal anti-conversion proposals. As for Sri Lanka's openly discriminatory incorporation laws, the United Nations Human Rights committee ruled in October 2005 that they violate international covenants and must be remedied. But this mandate has been ignored.
You may access the full article here
February 11: The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, in special consultative status with ECOSOC,
submitted this analysis of the rule of law and religious freedom law in Sri Lanka as a
contribution to the Universal Period Review of UNHRC member-state Sri Lanka. The Report concludes that:
Although the right to religious freedom is guaranteed by the
Constitution, the implementation of this protection falls short of international standards,
judging by the UDHR and the ICCPR.
September 7: The September 10 edition of FrontPage Magazine carries an article by Doug Bandow warning of a looming Buddhist threat to Religious Liberty in Thailand. Thailand, though a majority Buddhist nation, has traditionally allowed religious minorities to practice without fear of government intervention or restriction. However, following a military coup, a new, more proactive Buddhist majority threatens to change all that, and relegate religious minorities to a status perhaps like what we see for religious minorities in Sri Lanka. Bandow explains:
The military originally dismissed the idea of turning Buddhism into a state religion, but a minuscule march in Bangkok—by just 4,000 people—spooked the junta. The public mood had shifted against the regime and supporters of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra attempted to turn the Buddhist proposal to their advantage.
So army chief Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin said that he wouldn't block an amendment turning Buddhism into the state religion. He explained: "If a stipulation in the charter to this effect would lead to peace in the country, then it would be better to include it."
The drafting committee decided against doing so, but once elections are held, the new parliament could take up the issue again. Even though unsuccessful, the Buddhist campaign itself made Muslims and Christians nervous.
To read the entire article, click here.
August 16, 2007: According to The Associated Press, Evangelical groups have joined with Roman Catholic, Orthodox and mainstream Protestant churches to create a common code of conduct for religious conversions aimed to ease tensions with Muslims, Hindus and other religious groups that, in the past, have punished converts and foreign missionaries with imprisonment and even death. The World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Vatican were joined by the World Evangelical Alliance all met this month in France to continue talks started by the first two groups last year. According to the WCC:
...the code of conduct should serve as an "advocacy tool in discussions with governments considering anti-conversion laws (and) help to advance the cause of religious freedom." The rules should also address concerns in other religions about Christians seeking converts, and inspire those faiths to "consider their own codes of conduct," it added. The groups are working to agree on the guidelines for religious conversions by 2010.
The council noted, however, that "none of the partners involved intend _ nor have the means _ to impose the code of conduct on their constituencies, but they all trust that it will be able to 'impact hearts and minds' and allow for 'moral and peer pressure.'"
July 4, 2006: An independent report has verified SLN involvement in the attacks in Pesalai, which killed 6 and wounded 47 on June 17th. "Although in the initial days following the attack the government laid the responsibility for the attacks at the door of the LTTE, the strong report compiled and widely disseminated by the Bishop of Mannar pointed directly to Navy involvement. None of the many we met had the slightest doubt on this issue." The report was produced by members of the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA) and INFORM, two nongovernmental organizations, and was widely distributed by the Asian Human Rights Commission. Read the whole report here.
June 21, 2006: The Bishop of Mannar, Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph, sent a public letter to the Vatican decrying the attack on the Church of Our Lady of Victory on June 17th. The letter, which was sent through the Apostolic Nuncio to the island, says that the church, which is the biggest in Sri Lanka, “has been desecrated by the shedding of innocent blood by unjust aggressors, the SL Navy.” The government has denied responsibility, claiming the blame rests with the LTTE. In the letter, the Bishop also called the faithful to forgive, and asked for an immediate ceasefire between the government and the LTTE. Read the letter in its entirety here.
June 17, 2006: Using both gunfire as well as grenades, Sri Lanka Navy (SLN) troopers viciously attacked the Church of Our Lady of Victory, a Roman Catholic Church in the village of Pesalai, killing one elderly woman and injuring over 40 civilians. SLN troopers surrounded the church after 2,000-3,000 civilians had sought refuge within its walls. The death occurred after the troopers reportedly forced a church window open before dropping the fatal grenade inside. The SLN troopers also killed 5 fishermen on a nearby beach, as reported here. The Becket Fund condemns all attacks on houses of worship. Any house of worship which harbors civilians is an internationally recognized place of refuge, and any attack is per se a violation of human rights and international law, and a grave breach against the Geneva Convention:
Acts of hostility towards places of worship in international conflicts are prohibited. Places of worship may not be used in support of the military effort, and they cannot be the objects of reprisals. (Protocol I, Art. 53)
These prohibitions also apply in non-international conflicts. (Protocol II, Art. 16)
If there is any doubt as to whether a place of worship is being used to help the military action, then it will be presumed not to be so used. (Protocol I, Art. 52, Sec. 3)
Attacks against places of worship are grave breaches against the Geneva Convention. (Protocol I, Art. 85, Sec. 4)
April 7, 2006: Today Angela Wu, Becket Fund Director of International Advocacy, testified before the Congressional Human Rights Caucus at a Capitol Hill hearing on anti-conversion laws and religious freedom in South Asia and the Middle East. Ms. Wu dedicated significant testimony to the situation in Sri Lanka, including the following:
The U.N. and the human rights community must remain vigilant and continue to
press Sri Lanka for reform, but there is also a critical role for Congress. Currently Sri
Lanka is being considered for millions of dollars in Millennium Challenge Account
monies because of their “demonstrated commitment to just and democratic governance”
including its protection of human rights and civil liberties. Yet according to the State
Department, there has been a “overall deterioration in religious freedom” in Sri Lanka.
The Becket Fund, on behalf of 14 religious liberty organizations, asked to meet with
MCA staff to discuss these issues, but our efforts were rebuffed. It is ultimately up to
Congress to determine if Sri Lanka deserves Millennium Challenge Account monies and
it may condition any award on specific and concrete improvements in religious liberty.
The full text of the comments are available here.
April 5, 2006: The Archdiocese of Colombo reports that the Sri Lankan Speaker, W.J.M Lokubandara, has appointed 19 members to the Legislative Standing Committee on the Prohibition of Forcible Religious Conversions Bill, and that the committee is to be chaired by a Buddhist MP and Minister. This development signals that the government is has renewed its efforts to pass anti-conversion legislation despite campaign promises hinting otherwise. It appears that reports of the death of anti-conversion legislation have been greatly exaggerated.
March 16, 2006: Congressional interest in Sri Lankan religious freedom abuses continues. Nina Shea of Freedom House testified before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Global Human Rights to comment on the recently released, State Department 2005 Human Rights Report. Ms. Shea testified as follows regarding Sri Lanka:
The government of Sri Lanka has for years faced intense pressure from militant
Buddhists demanding an end to the growth of minority religions in this overwhelmingly
Buddhist country. Well-organized militants have perpetrated over 200 attacks against
religious minorities, largely Christian, over the past two years, yet the government of Sri
Lanka routinely appeases Buddhist extremists by failing to prevent the violence or
prosecute those responsible. The State Department report appropriately acknowledges
government indifference in the face of widespread and violent religious oppression.
According to an assessment of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the report is
deficient in that it neglects to mention the government’s introduction of anti-conversion
legislation; and it does not recognize the link between religious oppression and certain
In 2005, Sri Lanka was on the brink of adopting legislation that would have undermined
freedom of speech, press, assembly, and religion. On June 27, the government submitted
to the parliament a criminal anti-conversion bill authored by the current Prime Minister.
The bill sought to reverse the perceived growth of non-Buddhist religions by creating a
new crime of “attempted conversion” punishable by 5-7 years in prison. An international
outcry, including sharp criticism from the UN Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom, helped prevent the bill from coming to a vote before the most recent elections. Yet, the
heated and often violent debate continues and Sri Lanka may again move to criminalize
conversion in the coming months.
The report notes that a prominent Christian member of parliament was murdered inside a
Catholic cathedral while attending Christmas Mass and that the killers may have been
government-linked paramilitaries. The report also mentions a November 18th grenade
attack on a mosque that killed 4 worshippers during morning prayers by assailants who
remain at large. Unfortunately, the report describes these incidents as purely political
killings and inexplicably claims that they were “not religiously motivated.” The specific
targeting of houses of worship during prayer time should be included as an attack on
religion. Political considerations aside, these attacks had the effect of terrorizing people
of particular faiths and should be strongly condemned in those terms.
December 24, 2005: Today Sri Lanka lost another staunch defender of religious freedom to violence and in shocking fashion. Unidentified gunmen shot and killed TNA parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham while he was attending midnight Mass at St. Mary's cathedral in Batticaloa after receiving Holy Communion. The LTTE accused government security forces of conspiring with paramilitaries in the killing. As of year end the police had made no arrests.
Mr. Pararahasingham was the man responsible for a bill in Parliament designed to allow the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Menzingen to build a Catholic convent and religious school. The bill was subsequently found unconstitutional for being a "threat to Buddhism" yet the Sisters did not back down and petitioned the U.N. The U.N. Human Rights Committee last year found that Sri Lanka violated international religious freedom conventions by revoking Mr. Pararahasingham's bill (a full analysis available here). He shall be missed.
December 12, 2005: Today WSJ.com and the Wall Street Journal (Asian Print Edition) printed an opinion piece by Becket Fund attorney Roger Severino on the state of religious liberty in Sri Lanka:
Many Sri Lankans celebrate Christmas with shuttered windows and barricaded doors out of fear for their lives. Those brave enough to celebrate Christmas in defiance of local Buddhist authorities risk discrimination, exile, fire bombings, or worse.
* * *
Buddhist extremists see Sri Lanka's small Christian minority as a menace that threatens the island's majority religious and ethnic identity. In their view, the schools, churches, and social-service organizations run by Christians are doing nothing more than competing with them for converts. And while most countries recognize the ability to start religious schools and share one's faith with willing listeners as a fundamental human right, Sri Lanka does not. Indeed it continues to flout the international covenants it has signed on this point.
Radical Buddhists thunder that Christianity must be contained, either by force or by force of law -- preferably both.
The Wall Street Journal article is currently available for free here.
November 22, 2005: The United Nations Human Rights Committee recently released a decision against the government of Sri Lanka, finding them guilty of wrongly denying Christian service organizations of their right to legally exist. Specifically, Sri Lanka denied a Catholic order of nuns (the Sisters of the Holy Cross in Menzingen) legal recognition because one of their goals was to spread knowledge of their faith. This was seen in a decision by the Sri Lankan Supreme Court as "a threat to the very existence of Buddhism" and therefore contrary to the Sri Lankan constitution. However, the UN decision flatly rejects Sri Lanka's justifications as contrary to international conventions:
differential treatment in the conferral of a benefit by the State must be provided without discrimination on the basis of religious belief. The failure to do so in the present case thus amounts to a violation of the right in Article 26 (ICCPR) to be free from discrimination on the basis of religious belief.
The Committee also found Sri Lanka in violation of Article 18's guarantees of religious freedom but the real question now is whether Sri Lanka will abide by international law and treat all religions equally in law.
Full copies of the UN and Sri Lankan decisions are available here.
November 21, 2005: In a foreboding development, former Deputy Defence and Buddha Sasana Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake was appointed as Sri Lanka's new Prime Minster today by recently elected President Mahinda Rajapakse. President Rajapaske won a narrow electoral victory after allying with the marxist nationalist JVP party and the militant buddhist JHU party in an election stained by a forced boycott of Tamils in the North and East. The new Prime Minister was directly responsible for drafting and pushing for the government's anti-conversion bill in Parliament. Additionally, Mr. Wickremanayake has in the past compared religious evangelizers to terrorists and described them as "forces inimical to social stability and harmony" as reported by the Asian Tribune.
November 15, 2005: Congressional interest in Sri Lankan religious freedom abuses intensifies. Nina Shea of Freedom House testified before the House International Relations Subcommittee on Global Human Rights on the state of religious liberty around the world. The testimony included Sri Lanka among the list of countries that are failing to respect religious freedom as guaranteed by the UN Declaration of Human Rights.
The U.S. State Department has shown increased concern about these developments. It must continue to press Sri Lanka, one of the first recipients of Millennium Challenge Account development funds, to respect religious freedom.
You can find the full testimony transcript here.
November 8, 2005: The U.S. State Department chastized the Sri Lankan government today for its continued tolerance for violence and discrimination in its International Religious Freedom Report for 2005. The report objects to an "increase in attacks on Christian churches by Buddhist extremists and in societal tension due to ongoing allegations of forced conversions and debate on anti-conversion legislation." Annual State Department religious freedom reports are mandated by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) which allows for economic sanctions for countries that repeatedly fail to respect religious liberty.
November 2, 2005: Archbishop Gomis of Colombo speaks out on religious freedom and upcoming elections.
It is very unfortunate, once again, that certain radical groups have been propagating hatred and dissension in the name of religion paving the way to a religious strife when we are already on the throes of one civil war. The so-called Anti Conversion legislation - be it labelled as Anti Conversion Bill or Freedom of Religions Act, is a serious infringement of the fundamental right of every minority religious group in this country. We have clearly expressed our disapproval of and opposition to such legislation and have recommended alternatives if needs be.
You may find the complete statement here.
October 28, 2005: Today the Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop’s conference in a statement on the upcoming presidential election stated that “in the last few years there has been a growing tendency of religious extremism and intolerance infecting and contaminating our society to its detriment. . . .The basic rights and freedoms in relation to our religious practice have come under great threat from proposed draconian legislation in the form of an anti-conversion bill.” The U.S. State Department has shown increased interest in these developments but more can and must be expected from Sri Lanka, one of the first recipients of Millennium Challenge Account development monies.
October 4, 2005: The JHU attempted to reintroduce a discredited constitutional amendment to establish Buddhism as the state religion and revoke their citizen's freedom to influence the conversion of Buddhists “into other forms of worship or  spread other forms of worship among the Buddhists.” These discriminatory proposals have resulted in increased tensions and significant public protests from a broad array of religious groups.
September 30, 2005: In a press release issued today, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned the recent attempts by the JHU to introduce a proposed 19th amendment to the Sri Lankan constitution making Buddhism the official state religion and banning all conversions away from Buddhism:
If this amendment were to pass, these rights of individuals of the majority Buddhist community would be directly threatened, as their internationally guaranteed rights as outlined in the above documents would be abrogated.
"A traditional religion is not protected by violating the rights of its adherents. The voices of extremism in Sri Lanka should not be emboldened through the passage of this anti-democratic amendment,” said Cromartie.” “The Commission calls on the U.S. government to make every effort to urge the government of Sri Lanka not to alter its constitution in such a way that puts it in violation of its international obligations.”
The Commission has in the past raised concerns about proposed legislation restricting religious conversions in Sri Lanka, legislation that would have fallen short of international standards with regard to freedom of religion or belief. The Commission has urged all the parties involved in these issues to work together to restore a climate of religious tolerance in Sri Lanka and expressed the hope that the Sri Lankan government would pass laws that are consistent with international standards.
The full text of the proposed amendment to establish Buddhism is available at our Legislation page.
On August 12, 2005 a suspected LTTE sniper shot and killed Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar at his residence. The government accused the LTTE of carrying out the killing, a charge the LTTE denied. Minister Kadirgamar was a lone voice in the Cabinet who vigorously opposed the government's anti-conversion proposals. Sri Lanka has lost a great champion of religious liberty. Update: As of March 15, 2006, the perpetrators remain at large.
On August 9, 2005 The Vice President of the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC) responded to Becket Fund inquiries regarding Sri Lanka's deteriorating religious liberty record. The MCC response follows a Becket Fund led effort that questioned Sri Lanka's continuing eligibility for millions of dollars in Millenium Challenge Account development aid (not tsunami relief) given Sri Lanka's continuing tolerance of discrimination and violence against religious minorities. The Becket Fund letter, which was co-signed by the heads of 14 religious liberty organizations, argues that Sri Lanka must abide by the human rights guidelines established by the MCA before receving any reward.
July 17, 2005: Sri Lanka's Messenger reports that the Holy Cross Church at Pulasthigama in Anuradhapura had been set on fire between midnight and 1.00 a.m. by Buddhist militants. The central Crucifix, Holy Altar, Sacrificial items, and other valuable things were all destroyed as the church was almost completely burnt down.
Anton Joseph Fernando, Mary Sunila Shanthi, Devini Fernando and Rakmal Fernando who protested against this act of arson were badly attacked and had been threatened with death. They had tried their best but failed to douse the fire.
* * *
Mr. Anthony Fernando as an eye witness explained the incident that occurred on the 17th as follows:- “Around mid-night I heard dogs barking. I came out of my house and saw a lorry coming towards the church. In front of the lorry was a white van. The van stopped near the tree in front of the church. Then a person with a gun came forward and asked harshly “Where is your priest?” I told him that Father was at Palugasdamana. I asked him who he was. He told me that they were from the police and saying this he came and held a gun at my neck. Also he struck me on my head and stabbed me. The others came to me and said that this is a country that had a Buddhist culture and they tried forcibly to grab the cross on my chain. But they failed. Then they threw petrol into the church and set it on fire. We shouted and then they ran away. Four of us in the house got together and tried to douse the fire.” Mr. Anthony Fernando has been warded at the Rural Hospital in Palugasdamana with stab injuries.
On June 27, 2005 the Government of Sri Lanka publicly revealed its own, more draconian anti-conversion bill, which we expect will be rubber-stamped by Sri Lanka’s high court and thereafter quickly put up for a vote in Parliament once introduced. The legislation is so broadly worded that practically any action or speech that "indirectly influences" a person to convert from one religion to another could result in onerous fines or up to seven years imprisonment. For example, much of the tsunami aid money provided by faith-based groups could be lost due to the uncertainty created by the proposed law since such aid can easily be considered an illegal “allurement” to conversion. We expect many religiously-affiliated aid organizations would divert their generosity elsewhere rather than risk their workers being thrown in jail for seven years. For those organizations that do stay, we believe that the Government’s bill would at the very least have a chilling effect on their religious speech and expression, both of which are expressly protected by international covenants signed by Sri Lanka.
The Government has significantly improved the bills’ chances by publicly calling for “conscience votes” on both the JHU and Government proposals. Since conscience voting allows Members to vote outside of party affiliations, many observers believe this proviso will all but assure majority passage while also creating a climate of divisive religious sectarianism in Parliament.
On May 6, 2005, the nationalist JHU party reintroduced their anti-conversion bill into Parliament wihtout amendment, which would punish religious minorities with up to seven years imprisonment for the crime of “attempted conversion.” This bill has been referred to a select Parliamentary Committee and threatens to be put up to vote within six months, possibly sooner.
The April 1, 2005, edition of The Wall
Street Journal Asia featured an
editorial (subscription only) against Sri Lanka's proposed anti-conversion
law: "Anyone cutting through the mush can see that the proposed
law is a simple case of denying freedoms -- of expression on the
part of the faith-based aid organizations, and of religion on the
part of individual Sri Lankans." The editorial, entitled "Sri
Lanka's Blow to Freedom," noted The Becket Fund's work:
The corollary to the exalted
place Buddhism enjoys is that minority religions such as Christianity,
Islam and Hinduism, suffer from sporadic persecution. According
to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington, D.C.-based
interfaith law firm that defends the freedom of all religions,
there have been over 160 cases of religious violence or intimidation
in Sri Lanka in the past two years.
After months of discussion
and tinkering, the government is preparing this month to introduce
the "religious freedom" bill in parliament, where passage
seems assured. Some international organizations are mobilizing
against the measure, and the Becket Fund is preparing to make
it an issue next Tuesday before the United Nations Human Rights
Commission in Geneva.
press release on the Sri Lankan government's plans to introduce
anti-conversion bill (PDF format).
On March 31, 2005, Emilie Kao, Becket Fund
Director of International Advocacy, made an
oral intervention before the U.N. Commission on Human Rights
in Geneva condemning the impending introduction of a harsh anti-conversion
law in Sri Lanka that would jeopardize religiously-affiliated tsunami
relief. The Sri Lankan government
reply (PDF format) denied that it was preparing any anti-conversion
legislation, stating that "it was preposterous for the non-governmental
organization Becket Fund to suggest that legislation was being prepared
to jail faith-based aid workers." Yet this contradicts documents
obtained by The Becket Fund showing that the Cabinet Minister of
Buddha Sasana, Ratnasiri Wickramanayake, personally presented such
a bill (PDF format) to the full Cabinet in February 2005. Subsequent
news reports confirm that the Cabinet has approved this anti-conversion
bill and plans to introduce it to Parliament sometime in April.
statement on the news that the Sri Lankan
government plans to introduce an anti-conversion bill.
Listen to The Becket Fund's Roger Severino
on CBC Radio discussing
religious freedom in Sri Lanka (scroll down to Part 2).
briefing on Relief and Religion
in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka has generated interest. Read the briefing
remarks in PDF format.
A Colombo poster: "Let's
defeat the NGO mafia," picturing Monk Leader Soma Thero walking
with the Sri Lankan army.
We express our condolences to the victims
of the Indian Ocean tsunami. Read an appeal
from the Archbishop of Colombo, Sri Lanka. Read
an appeal from the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri
Read our press release:
"Christian Aid and Assistance
Unwanted and Even Unlawful In Southeast Asia: Religious Persecution
Read our talking
points on tsunami aid and religious persecution and our
brief on the religious liberty issues in Sri Lanka.
On July 22, 2004, Sri Lanka's JHU Party
introduced legislation that would silence religious expression and
criminalize religious conversions in the country. The proposed law
represents a stark culmination of a wave of religious intolerance
sweeping Sri Lanka. Violence against minority religious groups,
mostly Christians, has grown at an alarming rate in the past two
years. Pastors have been beaten, approximately 150 churches (including
the one pictured above) have been burned to the ground, and female
Christian workers have been sexually assaulted. The violence will
almost certainly escalate if the law passes. The Becket Fund for
Religious Liberty recently sent two attorneys to Sri Lanka on a
fact-finding mission. This site chronicles their findings, as well
as those of other NGOs and government agencies. Most importantly,
this website describes The Becket Fund's continuing efforts to promote
religious liberty in Sri Lanka and what you can do to help.