Reports of violence against Christians and churches in Sri Lanka have been on the increase. The reports indicate that the attacks for the large part have been perpetrated by extremist Buddhist groups, including the ‘Bodu Bala Sena’ and the ‘Sinhala Rawaya’.
“This year so far, there have been more than 30 incidents of persecution with 19 incidents coming in the month of March alone. There have also been 17 churches closed down. Last year there were 52 reported incidents of persecution,” a Sri Lankan Christian leader told Eternity (identity withheld for security reasons).
In Sri Lanka, Protestant Christians number around 300,000: about 1 per cent of the population of 20 million. There are three main Christian institutions in the country: the Roman Catholic church, the National Christian Council, and the National Christian Evangelical Alliance (NCEASL). The NCEASL and other smaller Christian denominations have not been given official recognition by the state. Buddhism is the state religion.
The recent rise in violence could be linked with a rise in Buddhist nationalism. This rise is exemplified by the group called ‘Bodu Bala Sena’, an extremist Buddhist group linked to violent protests aimed at insulating Sri Lanka from other religions. The attacks are not limited to Christians, and have also targeted the Muslim community. Various news reports of these attacks have been previously published, in Christian Today, and Sri Lanka’s Sunday Leader.
“They have engaged in large scale public demonstrations, hate speech campaigns and incited violence against Muslims and Christians in the country. As of late, the attacks have turned violent and as a result many churches have been targeted,” said Eternity’s Sri Lankan source.
In the majority of reported cases, the police have taken no action. There have been other reports of the police harassing churches, and government authorities asking churches to prove their legality under threat of shutting down.
“The response [from the government and authorities] has been disappointing. In fact, the very extremist groups that have run rampant targeting minority religious communities in the country seem to be operating with implicit approval of the state. These groups have gone around engaging in hate speech and violence with absolute impunity,” said the leader.
These accounts are corroborated by a 2011 report from the US Department of State, which notes that ‘Local police officials reportedly were reluctant to take legal action against individuals involved in the attacks,’ and that approval to build church buildings ‘was difficult to obtain for evangelical Christian groups in majority Buddhist towns and villages’.
In the 2012 Colombo Statement, issued by the Religious Liberty Partnership in Sri Lanka, Sri Lankan Christian leaders acknowledged ‘that although extreme elements within religious sectors have called for anti-conversion laws, the Sri Lankan government has taken care to protect the constitutional right to freedom of religious choice by not enacting proposed laws that would subject religious conversion to criminal scrutiny.’
Further, the statement calls for worldwide Christians to pray for ‘the recognition of Evangelical Protestant Christians by the government, as equal citizens with due respect and rights accorded to other religious communities in the country,’ as well as for an end to the ‘forced closure of churches by the police and local authorities’, and to ‘the continued violent attacks on clergy and places of Christian worship’.
When asked about the church’s response to the persecution, the anonymous leader said: “The main response has been to pray for the situation, especially for wisdom, courage and the Holy Spirit’s guidance as a church. The church has also worked to prepare those in the front lines of persecution, by training them on how to face persecution and suffering.”