Violence Against Christians Escalates in Sri Lanka

Thursday, January 22, 2004

Drive to stop religious conversion attributed to death of controversial Buddhist monk.
by Joshua Newton

KOCHI, India, January 22 (Compass) -- Christians suffered further violence in the Buddhist-majority country of Sri Lanka on January 20, when a Catholic church was attacked near the capital, Colombo, despite the presence of a heavily armed police guard.

Witnesses said the attackers brought in tires and set fire to them at the door of St. Anthony’s church at Hokandara near Colombo. Police later dispersed the mob, a resident said.

Priest Hishantha Perera told reporters that the attackers managed to vandalize a cross outside the church even though they failed to enter the church building. “The attackers came in despite the armed police guard,” he said.

A week earlier, Sinhala Buddhist protestors set fire to a Catholic church in Homagama, on the outskirts of Colombo. A police spokesman said an investigation was under way and a man had been arrested in connection with the arson attack.

Catholic sources said a group of Buddhist monks had earlier threatened the parish priest of the burned church and hoisted Buddhist flags on the church premises. The police in Homagama took no action even though Buddhist monks had threatened the priest, telling him to leave the area or face dire consequences.

Sri Lankan police and armed forces are predominantly Sinhala Buddhist.

Six churches of different Christian denominations have been burned in recent months in a rising tide of violence against Christians in the Sinhala majority districts of Sri Lanka.

“At least 65 churches, mostly non-Catholic ones, have been attacked this year and 15 came under attack in December alone,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, general secretary of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

Attacks against churches escalated in December following the death of Gangodavila Soma, a controversial Buddhist monk who led a campaign against religious conversions. The monk died of a heart attack while traveling in Russia, fuelling conspiracy theories despite an autopsy showing he died of natural causes.

Dozens of Buddhist monks launched a sit-down protest outside the Buddhist Affairs ministry in Colombo after the monk’s death, demanding legislation to ban conversions.

Following the monk’s death, Christmas masses at almost all Catholic churches across the country were conducted under police protection amid fears of attacks from Buddhist mobs.

“Over the past two months in particular, several churches have been attacked and on some occasions, church workers beaten up,” said a representative of the National Christian Council, comprised of Protestant and Anglican churches.

In the Kegalle District, a mob of about 15 laymen and 10 monks attacked an Assemblies of God church in Deraniyagala on December 7, 2003. The pulpit, windows and doors of the church were destroyed. Attackers made their way to the first floor of the building and set afire Bibles and other valuables belonging to church workers. They then threatened church workers with death if they continued their work in the community.

The call for anti-conversion legislation has been underway for over a year. At least 1,500 Buddhist monks gathered in Colombo last September to call for a total ban on Christian activity leading to what they call “unethical conversions.” Like the Hindu extremist groups in India, they argue that Christian groups offer cash to poor people to persuade them to convert, a charge Christians deny.

Buddhist monks of the Jathika Sangha Sammelanaya are in the forefront of the campaign against conversions. Sammelanaya President Ven. Ellawala Medhananda Thera has said they will continue their campaign until the government takes action and enacts laws to prevent Christians from converting Buddhists and Hindus.

Christians make up 7.5 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, a majority-Buddhist tropical island located off the southern tip of India.

Sri Lanka’s President Chandrika Kumaratunga has ordered the police to “show no leniency in arresting those responsible” for attacks against Christians.

However, local authorities in Sri Lanka have recently rejected applications from Christian groups to build churches on the grounds that “it will be a nuisance to the Buddhists in the area.”