Lanka: Buddhist nationalism posing major threat to Christians – Patrick Sookhdeo

August 18, 2013 by  
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Sri Lanka, August 15, 2013: Christians and other minorities in Sri Lanka are under growing threat from an aggressive Sinhalese Buddhist movement that is stepping up efforts to assert its supremacy in the country.

Christian gatherings in Sri Lanka are being targeted

Christian gatherings in Sri Lanka are being targeted

Buddhist nationalist groups, of which the Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force or BBS) and Sinhala Ravaya (Sinhala Echo) are the most prominent, are leading a hate campaign against what they describe as Christian and Muslim extremist groups operating in the country. They hold mass public demonstrations against Christian and Muslims, claiming that these minority groups pose a threat to the Sinhalese Buddhist majority, and incite violence against them.

In May, a Buddhist monk set himself on fire as a protest against the conversion of Buddhists by Christians and other minority groups, and also the halal slaughter of cattle by Muslims. Supporters of Sinhala Ravaya praised his “heroic act” in defence of the nation’s values, while Udaya Gammanpila, a member of the Buddhist political party Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), promised to “transform his demands into reality” through a new law.

The campaign is becoming increasingly violent. Almost every week, a church, mosque or Muslim business is attacked by extremists. Attacks on the Muslim minority, who comprise around ten per cent of the population, have attracted some international media coverage, but the persecution of Christians, who comprise around seven per cent, has received little attention.

More than 20 mosques have been attacked over the last year, while so far this year, at least 30 churches have been targeted. Buddhist monks have also forced the closure of 18 churches in southern Sri Lanka, vowing in local newspaper reports to shut down the rest.

The number of violent incidents against Christians has risen substantially over the last couple of years. In 2012, there were 52, an increase of more than 100% from the previous year. Up to the end of July this year, there had already been 49 recorded attacks. These include the physical assault of church leaders and members, death threats, forced displacement, destruction of churches and damage to property.


The Sinhalese Buddhist lobby is gaining increasing influence with the authorities, who are also moving against churches; many churches have reported being ordered to stop their activities because they have not been “authorised” by the state, even though religious groups are not officially required to register in Sri Lanka.

The government is considering introducing regulations for religious groups, including legislation that would enable the authorities to take action against those that are deemed “cults”. This could threaten the country’s Evangelical churches, which are not recognised by the Religious Affairs Ministry.

The Buddhist extremists are particularly venomous about Evangelical Christians. In February, a prominent BBS leader said that they “were attempting to perpetuate Christian extremism in the country”.

The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) has attributed the resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, following the country’s 26-year-long civil war. This, it said, was seen by some as a victory of Buddhism over Tamil nationalism, a point that the government is reinforcing by building Buddhist temples and shrines in Hindu-majority areas in the north and east, where the war took place.

The WEA warned:

This post-war resurgence of nationalism no longer threatens only the Tamil ethnic minority, but also religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims.
A church in Weliweriya came under fire by the army on 1 August in a display of the brutality for which the military became renowned during the civil war.

It started with soldiers firing at villagers who were peacefully protesting about the contamination of the water supply by a local textile factory. People ran to the church for shelter, and as a church worker tried to protect them, she was threatened with a machine gun.

The army continued to fire at protesters inside the church. Three people were killed, including 18-year-old Christian Ravinash Perera, and dozens more were injured. Church leaders condemned the army’s “unacceptable and unjustifiable” violence.


In the midst of the torrent of opposition, abuse and violence, however, church leaders won a significant high court victory on 2 August. They brought a case following a hostile attack on a church by Buddhist extremists in April.

The Sunday service was underway when community leaders burst into the church and demanded a halt to proceedings. A mob of nearly 1,000, who were wielding sticks and stones, had surrounded the building and started chanting, “Leave or be killed”.

The pastors argued in court that the country’s constitution upholds freedom of religion and that their churches should therefore be allowed to meet. Ruling in their favour, the judge warned local authorities not to disturb their gatherings again.

This is certainly a welcome development, but given the climate of hostility towards Christians in Sri Lanka at present, it is unlikely that Buddhist extremists on the ground will take much notice of it. Local law enforcement agencies, which have largely allowed extremists to attack churches with impunity, must back up the court ruling by upholding the right of Christians and other minorities to practise their faith freely.

Despite – or even because – of the opposition, the Church in Sri Lanka is growing as Christians change the way they meet to minimise the risk of attack. They are increasingly meeting in smaller groups in people’s homes, which are proving much less intimidating for unbelievers to attend. As a result, many people are hearing the Gospel and turning to Christ.

It is encouraging to hear how the Church is Sri Lanka is standing firm in the face of mounting persecution and demonstrating that the work of the Holy Spirit cannot be thwarted.

– patrick sookhdeo

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