Sri Lankan Re-opened Church Attacked on Easter Sunday

Friday, April 16, 2004

More than 146 churches attacked since January 2003.

by Sarah Page

BANKOK, April 16 (Compass) -- A Christian Fellowship Church (CFC) in the Kalutara district of Sri Lanka was attacked on April 11, Easter Sunday, leading to minor injuries and damage to the church building. This latest attack adds to the total of more than 146 churches attacked since January 2003. Sixty of those attacks have occurred in the past four months.

The CFC church in Wadduwa village was forced to sign a temporary closure agreement in January 2004 after a crowd of villagers attacked the church on two consecutive Sundays.

However, the pastor and church members were determined to hold services over Easter weekend, saying, “How long can we go on like this, keeping the church closed?”

Pastor Sunil had approached local police for advice before resuming services on April 9, Good Friday. The police advised against it, but church members were eager for fellowship after being confined to small house groups for the past three months.

The service on Good Friday was held without disturbance. However on Easter Sunday, a small crowd of about 30 people, led by an influential Buddhist monk from the village, interrupted the gathering of 100 church members.

As the service began, the mob demanded that church members leave the building. They also threw stones, damaging the glass windows. The pastor and other church members, including some of the women, were slapped and beaten with sticks as they emerged from the church. Parents tried to shield their terrified children, but despite this, a few children were among the ten or so people injured in the attack.

The church has since made a police entry at the Wadduwa police station. A few members of the mob were arrested, but they were later released with the consent of the pastor.

The current problems at CFC church began on December 28, 2003 -- just a few short weeks after the death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma, an influential Buddhist monk who spearheaded a campaign to introduce anti-conversion laws to Sri Lanka. A rumor was soon spread by the Buddhist community claiming that Christians were responsible for Soma’s death, despite three official autopsies showing that Soma had died of natural causes.

In response, President Chandrika Kumaratunga called for a police guard on churches for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. However, many pastors around the country were warned by local monks that they should cancel services as a mark of respect for Soma.

Pastor Sunil’s congregation gathered for services as usual on December 28. They were soon interrupted by a large crowd of about 300 people, led by three Buddhist monks, who rushed into the church. One of the monks stepped into the pulpit and ordered the pastor to stop the meeting.

A church member picked up a cell phone to call the police, but the monk in the pulpit shouted at him to stop. The phone was surreptitiously passed to another church member who ran out of the room and managed to call the police.

The police arrived five minutes later but were unable to control the crowd. According to Pastor Sunil and his wife, the crowd was “boisterous, running around and destroying things. They were shouting and letting off firecrackers to frighten the believers.”

The crowd stayed for about two hours, saying they would not leave until all the Christians had gone home. The pastor claimed some people in the crowd were carrying brass knuckles, clubs and iron bars, and had threatened to destroy the building.

“There were children with us, so I thought it was best to ask the believers to leave,” said Sunil. When the believers left two hours after the attack began, the crowd of Buddhist villagers finally dispersed.

“That evening I lodged a police entry for my future safety,” said the pastor. “The police told me not to hold the service again because of opposition, but the believers were keen, so I invited them back on the following Sunday.”

During that week, the church was attacked at night and stones were thrown at the windows, breaking two panes of glass.

“The next Sunday I kept some of my people at the main gate, some in the church office, and others at the back door,” said Sunil. “But we were attacked again, this time by a much bigger crowd -- so many that we couldn’t count them.”

“In fact, there were so many of them that one of the mob asked us, ‘Why aren’t you afraid?’ One of our sisters replied, ‘Because, even if you close the doors of our church, you can’t take Jesus out of our hearts.’”

Several policemen armed with tear gas arrived in a van, but the mob attacked the van and the police had to remove it from the church premises. The officer in charge asked the Buddhist monks who were leading the mob to promise that nobody would be harmed. The church members were then asked to leave, and the pastor was taken to the police station to file a report. Around 100 villagers also came to the police station to lodge a complaint against the church.

Following this incident, representatives from the church and the local Buddhist temple had to sign an agreement stating that the church would “temporarily” suspend services. However, no date was given when services could be resumed.

Since the agreement was signed, church members have gathered in small house meetings in various areas around Wadduwa. “This makes our work more difficult,” says Sunil.

Buddhist monks have also questioned the legal status of the church, which is registered under the Companies Act rather than as a religious institution. This is a common practice for churches in Sri Lanka, and until the monks can change national laws, CFC is legally registered and has an official building permit, issued in 1998.

As for the future of the ministry, “Now we’re afraid to say anything to people because we don’t know whether they are open to the gospel or not,” says Sunil. “But we have not given up.”

He still remembers the days when, as a Buddhist teenager, he used to argue with Christians about their theology. “But when I was arguing with those people I realized who Jesus was,” he adds.

“Buddhism won’t really answer those questions about how the world began, or about sin. That’s why we have to keep preaching the gospel.”