After years of growing religious tensions and violence in Sri Lanka generated by hardline ethnic Buddhist groups, a new Government has taken office and staked out a much more tolerant view of religious diversity, David Saperstein, Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom at the US State Department said.
He said that since the new Government too office some of these tensions have noticeably eased.
David Saperstein was speaking at the release of the latest report on international religious freedom compiled by the US State Department. The report was released by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
Kerry said that by issuing the report, the US hopes to give Governments an added incentive to honor the rights and the dignity of their citizens.
On Sri Lanka, the report notes that last year, NGOs accused authorities of reluctance to investigate or prosecute those responsible for attacks on churches, Hindu kovils, and mosques and characterized this as indicative of a deepening “culture of impunity” that protected alleged Buddhist perpetrators.
At times local police and government officials appeared to be acting in concert with Buddhist nationalist organizations, according to targeted Muslim and Christian groups and legal experts who noted that the prosecution of perpetrators was rare. Evangelical Christian churches, especially in the south, reported increased pressure and harassment by local government bodies to suspend worship activities as “unauthorized gatherings” or close down if they were not registered with the government, despite no legal requirement to do so.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) stated that “dozens” of churches from all parts of the country had been questioned about their legality by local government officials and police based on the circulars noted above.
The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) continued to promote the supremacy of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist population and propagated views hostile toward members of religious and ethnic minorities. For example, BBS General Secretary Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero regularly made inflammatory statements about “Islamic invasion and aggression” and “forced conversions” by Christian groups as posing existential threats to Buddhism in the country. Local media and NGOs said there were strong linkages between the BBS and the government.
At the BBS convention in September, leaders of the group called for a new constitution to protect the majority Sinhalese community. Christians, particularly those from evangelical denominations, encountered harassment and physical attacks on property and places of worship by local Buddhists who stated they were opposed to conversion and believed Christian groups threatened them.
On January 12 last year, a Buddhist mob attacked two evangelical churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa during services. The protestors caused thousands of dollars of damage, burning Bibles, breaking windows, and smashing musical instruments. The attack, filmed and broadcast nationally on Derana TV and posted on a social media site, showed police standing by while protesters carried out acts of destruction.
Then opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian and Leadership Council Chair Karu Jayasuriya released a statement on January 14 accusing the Rajapaksa government of allowing religious and ethnic intolerance to “reign with impunity.”
The US report said that local authorities continued to cite the 2008 circular requiring prior government approval of new churches when they closed down churches, including those that predate the circular, even though it is not part of the law. (Colombo Gazette)