Date: Friday 8 November 2002
Subj: Sri Lanka: Escalating Buddhist Nationalism.
To: World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty E-mail Conference
From: Elizabeth Kendal, Conference Moderator
In recent years, Sri Lanka has seen the rise of an increasingly aggressive Buddhist nationalism, complete with disinformation, discrimination and violent persecution. The movement gained considerable momentum during 2001, especially after Prime Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake suggested there was a conspiracy against Buddhism in Sri Lanka, and urged young men to enter the priesthood in order to protect the religion. He claimed that Buddhism was under threat, even though more than seventy percent of the population is Buddhist (with Hindu, Muslim and Christian minorities).
Buddhist leaders have been lobbying the government to ban conversions to Christianity. According to Operation World 21st Century Edition, while Buddhism is growing at 1.1 percent, Protestant Christianity is growing at 3.9 percent and the independent churches are growing at 20.1 percent. Buddhism reportedly loses some 23,000 people each year to Christianity.
Along with Church growth, the trend is increasing social hostility and violent persecution. While the government endorses religious freedom, it appears to be unwilling to engage in political suicide by protecting the Christian minority in this climate of escalating Buddhist nationalism.
ESCALATING BUDDHIST NATIONALISM
A conference was held in July 2001 with the aim of "making all Buddhists aware of the seriousness of this problem (conversions)." The media release on the conference stated, "The fundamentalist Evangelists who are unethically converting Buddhists to Christianity are one of the main threats to Buddhism." ("Buddhist conference tomorrow at BMICH", by Mallika Wanigasundera, 29 July 2001)
The problem, it claimed, was that "religious freedoms are abused by Evangelists on the assumption that there are no bounds to their activities under the law." Sighting India as a precedent, the Buddhists claimed that, "conversion is not a fundamental right." Other matters to be discussed at the conference were, "Construction of churches, conversion of residences into churches, action brought by Evangelists in the courts over the issue of visas to religious teachers."
The Sinhala Commission Report of July 2001 identified Christianity as the main enemy of Sinhalese culture and religion. According to the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (EASL), this report set a media smear campaign in motion.
"Political and religious leaders are mounting attacks against Christian groups. It also has stirred up anti-Christian sentiment across the country and has given credibility to the accusations of Buddhist extremists.
"Various factions of Buddhist extremists are calling on the government to pass a law to ban conversions. Clerics in several districts have vowed to take collective action against Christians, particularly those working amongst the poverty-stricken rural areas.
"Buddhist leaders and organisations are also exerting pressure on the prime minister and the government to rescind visas for Christian missionaries.
"One of the more vocal Buddhist lobby groups is the Bauddha Sanrakshana Sabhava (BSS) (also known as the Society for the Preservation of Buddhism). The BSS has its headquarters in the Asgiriya Temple in Kandy, and is led by an influential monk, the Venerable Medagama Dharmananda Thero. Their aim is to set up branches in every district to monitor the growth of Christianity and prevent conversions. They also intend to close down churches already established in traditional Buddhist villages." (EASL, CSW)
On top of this, the EASL reports, "The Presidential Commission on Buddhism has recommended that the village monk's decision in a particular village should not be overturned by either the Police or Courts."
This virtually gives Buddhist monks police powers that enable them to act like religious police with ultimate authority and total impunity.
Recent statements from the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (EASL).
EASL 17 September 2002
THE LORD IS MY STRENGTH WORSHIP CENTRE
On Sunday 15th September an independent church in Padukka (a predominantly Buddhist area south of Colombo) 'The Lord is my Strength Worship Centre' was attacked by a mob led by a Buddhist monk. Around 30 - 35 believers were gathered together on Sunday morning for worship. They were in prayer when at 9 am a monk from a nearby Temple walked in with a mob of about 100 people.
He threatened the stunned believers, ordering them to leave the Church, and instructing the mob to attack them and if necessary kill them. The monk struck the first blow, attacking pastor Shun Turin with his umbrella. When he fell to the ground from a blow to his stomach, the monk picked up a wooden chair and dealt two brutal blows to the pastor's head. The entire gathering was witness to this. As he lay bleeding the mob overran the church assaulting the believers - including women and children - with wooden chairs from the church, window bars, and iron rods removed from the church drum set. The injured included a 10 month-old baby.
The church building and property within were destroyed including furniture, musical instruments and Bibles. The building was totally demolished and the roof has caved in. Meanwhile the incident was reported to the Padukka police and the believers identified the monk and some of the attackers. However, the police have not taken any action.
EASL Friday 18 Oct 2002
Pastor Stephen Yogarajah from Bethlehem Church Chilaw, Sri Lanka, was returning from a prayer meeting in Karukupana village with his wife and 11 year-old son. It was around 9.30 p.m. At Kodolkela 12 km from Chilaw 10-15 hooded men with masks blocked the road and started attacking the vehicle and the people in it with bars, poles, and clubs. The vehicle was badly smashed up and the occupants in the vehicle were also injured.
Pastor Yogarajah suffered injuries on his hand and head, while his wife is nursing a fractured arm. The 11year-old son was admitted to hospital with head injuries requiring stitches. The men had also attempted to gas the family by connecting the car LP gas tubes to the petrol connector.
EASL Monday 21 October 2002
ASSEMBLY OF GOD WORSHIP CENTRE
Assembly of God worship centre Weerawilla. One of Sister Lalani Jayasinghe's branch churches in Weerawilla was burnt down last week on October 13th. Sister Lalani Jayasinghe is the wife of Pastor Lionel Jayasinghe who was martyred in 1987 in Tissamaharama South of Sri Lanka.
An unidentified group of men set fire to the worship hall and also to a believer's home situated nearby. The house and worship centre were completely burned down. The believer lost all his belongings and is now without a home. Two bikes parked in the premises and a water-pump were also destroyed by the mob.
- Elizabeth Kendal
Further reading: U.S. Department of State International Religious
Freedom Report for 2002 - Sri Lanka.