[T]he constitution does
not recognize a fundamental right to propagate a religion."
- Sri Lanka Supreme Court, 2003
As dawn is about to break on December 19,
2004, a group of people enter a church in Katuwana, a small town
in western Sri Lanka-but they do not come to worship, they come
to destroy. St. Michael the Archangel's Catholic Church is
now in ruins, with relics and holy objects smashed, the Tabernacle
destroyed, and the church burned to an empty shell. The church had
been threatened by militant Buddhists for holding Christian services
over the last 13 months, culminating with this, the third and most
violent attack with no arrests, as reported by the BBC News.
If recent history is any guide, mobs similar to the one that torched
St. Michael's will visit other churches in much the same
way-instead offering peace and goodwill, they will bring machetes
and firebombs. A party of powerful, extremist Buddhist monks are
holding religious liberty hostage in Sri Lanka. Through politics,
media, "fasts unto death," and violence, Buddhist extremists
are pressuring the government to pass laws that would ban religious
conversions and culminate in making Buddhism the official state
Christian persecution in Sri Lanka has escalated to epidemic proportions
with over 160 violent attacks in the last two years. These attacks
were precipitated by cynical government appeasement of a small but
politically savvy group of militant Buddhist monks. These monks
believe that the Buddha himself chased out the original "demon"
inhabitants of Sri Lanka millennia ago and subsequently designated
the ethnic Sinhalese people (now 74% of the population) as the defenders
of "pure" Theravada Buddhism. This militant theology is
unusual in the Buddhist world as it justifies violence in the name
of Buddhism whenever there is a perceived threat. Thus, Christianity,
although comprising only 7% of the population and established in
the country since the 16th century, is seen as alien and corrupting
of indigenous culture. For the sake of national and cultural identity,
religious conversions to Christianity must therefore be contained,
or so the argument goes. Unfortunately, in Sri Lanka "containment"
typically means death threats and burning churches to the ground.
Government appeasement of this virulent ideology began in earnest
in the summer of 2003 when the Sri Lankan Supreme Court declared
that "the propagation and spreading of Christianity . . . would
impair the very existence of Buddhism." This decision legitimized
increasing levels of violence against Christians as it labeled core
Christian activity, evangelization and social service provision,
as contrary to the constitution and a direct threat to Buddhist
identity. Subsequently, when an incendiary Buddhist monk (the Ven.
Gangodawila Soma Thero), died of natural causes while overseas,
wild rumors quickly took root suggesting assassination by Christians.
Soma Thero's very public and provocative burial on Christmas Eve
sparked an unprecedented wave of anti-Christian violence, yet arrests
of the perpetrators were few and prosecutions were even rarer.
The situation worsened after divided elections of April 2004 marked
the official entry of nationalist Buddhist monks into politics under
the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) banner. The JHU party promptly introduced
a draconian anti-conversion bill which would, in effect, criminalize
all attempts at religious conversion. Violators would be punished
by 5 to 7 years in prison and fined up to 15 months of income (500,000
rupees). Although the Sri Lankan Supreme Court reviewed the bill
and left its main provisions intact, the JHU is still not satisfied;
they seek to force all people that are involved with conversions
(including the converts themselves) to register with the government
or be thrown in jail.
In September 2004 the U.S. State Department
formally recognized Sri Lanka's "overall deterioration in religious
freedom" and cataloged the alarming rise in anti-Christian
violence in its annual International Religious Freedom Report. On
November 19th of that year, thirty-one members of the U.S. Congress
submitted a letter to the President of Sri Lanka, expressing concern
over the anti-conversion bill and reminding her that Sri Lanka is
a voluntary signatory to several international covenants that uphold
the freedom of religion. Ironically, on the very same day the JHU
introduced in Parliament a constitutional amendment to make Buddhism
the official state religion and prohibit "the spread of other
forms of worship among the Buddhist[s]." The government's response
has been silence.
Sensing weakness, in December 2004 the
JHU issued an ultimatum to the government-that it appoint a Presidential
commission to re-investigate last year's death of the controversial
monk Soma Thero, and that it agree to bring the JHU's anti-conversion
bill up for a vote-or else JHU monks would begin a fast unto death.
The government capitulated on the JHU's first demand, it remains
to be seen whether the demagogues will be appeased again.
The tragic tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in
late December of 2004 swept away many homes and lives, but it appears
that religious intolerance has survived. The JHU has made no moves
towards reconciliation and religious groups have been forced to
renew their petitions of the government to prevent passage of the
proposed anti-conversion laws and constitutional amendment. The
massive relief efforts provided by religiously-affiliated NGOs present
a potentially explosive situation. These same organizations have
been routinely demonized in the Sri Lankan press for allegedly "bribing"
the poor to gain converts and undermining Sri Lanka's Buddhist identity.
These criticism have led to violent attacks, as exemplified by the
firebombing of World Vision offices in early 2004. Under the proposed
anti-conversion law, persons working in religiously-affiliated relief
organizations that offer "gifts or material benefits"
to disaster victims would be subject to 5-7 year prison terms. The
influx of foreign Christian aid workers among the neediest Sri Lankans
presents a large target for Buddhist extremists.
On a recent fact-finding trip to Sri Lanka,
I met victims of anti-Christian violence and heard their heart-wrenching
stories. Pastor Shawn Turing of the Lord is our Strength Church
recounted how he was sent to the hospital by an angry mob that beat
him with an iron rod in church as his congregation watched in horror.
All persons, including Pastor Turing have the right to worship freely
and without fear. Sri Lanka cannot claim to be part of the international
family of nations if it allows such gross violations of fundamental
human rights to continue. Further government appeasement of extremists
will only embolden and legitimize these enemies of religious freedom.
Because recent events have set the stage for another tragically
violent year; the extremists must finally be confronted now, before
it is too late.
Contact: Roger Severino
1350 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 605
Washington, DC, 20036
Phone (202) 349-7230 Fax (202) 955-0090