Sri Lanka: 146 Places of Worship Closed in Last 4 Months

Monday, April 12, 2004

Goodwill Ambassador of WEA expresses great concern over Sri Lanka.

By Elizabeth Kendal
World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission (WEA RLC)
Special to ASSIST News Service

AUSTRALIA (ANS) -- The religious situation in Sri Lanka has been deteriorating for several years. However, a momentum seems to be gathering and heading towards 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.”

Johan Candelin, who is also the International Director of WEA RLC, confirmed, “WEA will monitor Sri Lanka in its annual Report to the United Nations.”


Q) How bad is the situation in Sri Lanka for Christians?

JC) The situation is very bad. There are the direct attacks by mobs with firebombs etc., but there is also an anti-Christian campaign going on in the media and this incites the local threats. So mentally and spiritually the suffering is enormous. December 2003 alone saw about 40 attacks, and then we need to remember that it is estimated that not even half of the attacks are reported. Just think of the children in a family who see their home attacked and burnt down!

Q) To what extent is the present religious violence against Christians related to the peace process? (The proposed peace deal would give Tamils autonomy in the north and power-sharing in the national government.)

JC) It seems to me that the Singhalese national identity is rather weak (and the Tamil, rather strong), leaving many Singhalese people feeling threatened. This campaign seems to be a reaction to that feeling of insecurity. On one front people say, “The Tamils are getting the north,” and, “the Norwegian peace facilitators have a secret agenda.” On the other side many say that there is an American agenda to use the Evangelical churches to destroy the Buddhist heritage in the south. The Evangelical population is, however, only about 1%, so there is not really much logic in this. But of course logic and feelings seldom go hand in hand. It is also interesting to see that almost all attacks are in the South!

Q) What has led to the present severe deterioration? To what extent are advertising, media and political figures feeding the deterioration?

JC) For years there seems to have been going on behind the scene a very well organized campaign against, and clear strategy to contain, greater Christian influence. Part of this strategy has been that the attacks will not be made inside the big cities and against the "old churches". Rather, when the gospel is shared for the first time in a Buddhist village then the attacks begin.

Newspapers, books and banderols are used for the hate and disinformation campaign. On one burnt church wall I saw a great banderol claiming “the Church is no more”. Of course the claim that the Christians had killed the beloved Buddhist leader Venerable Soma in December 2003 was the trigger for a number of attacks. Ven. Soma died in Moscow of a heart attack and three non-Christian doctors made it clear that he had died a natural death but that did not stop the campaign.

Q) Elections are approaching on 4 April. Does the newly formed party of Buddhist monks, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), pose any real threat in terms of their ability to polarise society, heighten Buddhist nationalist zeal, stoke sectarian and ethnic tension, or grab the balance of power?

JC) Yes, it has been a long time since Buddhist leaders last ran for Parliament. If some of them are elected it will have a very bad effect on religious freedom. One bad effect would be that they would have a national, democratic platform for their anti-Christian message. Another bad effect would be that as monks, they would affect other Buddhists in other parties. Their JHU party might even hold the balance of power enabling them to be the party that decides whether the present government or the present opposition gets the majority in the new Parliament. In that case they would have much more influence than they really should. A third bad effect would be that they would surely try to introduce an anti-conversion law after the Indian model. And many other MPs would hesitate to vote against that fearing it might look like they are defending the Christians against Buddhism.

Q) What is the mood amongst Sri Lankan Christians?

JC) The mood is good but of course they are very concerned. There are two good things: 1) The Evangelical Alliance does a great job in coordinating and helping the suffering churches. 2) Since the attacks on Catholic churches the Catholic Church now clearly also is defending total religious freedom for all Christians. That solidarity strengthens the Christian voice.

Q) What does the future hold for Sri Lanka's Christians?

JC) Worst scenario: Breakdown of the peace process and a stronger influence of violent nationalistic Buddhism. It needs to be said, however, that most Buddhists are not violent and do not support attacks.

Best scenario: Peace, better protection of the Christian minority, effective rule of law and the opening of constructive talks between Evangelicals and Buddhist. Both are afraid of the other group now.