Freedom of Religion

In support of religious minorities, rule of law and Lakshan Dias

First published on 18th June 2017, at http://groundviews.org/2017/06/18/in-support-of-religious-minorities-rule-of-law-and-lakshan-dias/

Religious minorities in Sri Lanka – particularly Muslims and Evangelical Christians – faced serious persecution under the Rajapakse Government, which has continued even under the Sirisena-Ranil Government. The Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, who has been hostile towards Evangelical Christians (a numerical minority amongst Christians), now appears to be assisting this Government’s approach of denying the actual problem and attacking those who are attempting to highlight the gravity of the problem. The latest victim is well known human rights lawyer and my good friend, Lakshan Dias.

Given the latest statements from the President and the Minister of Justice, and the general lack of focus on violations of religious rights of Evangelical Christians, I will focus on violence directed towards them (Evangelical Christian) in this article. Some of the systematic violence directed towards the Muslim community has been already well documented.[1]

On 27 May 2017, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) issued a press release, expressing concern about increasing attacks on religious minorities in Sri Lanka.[2] They cited over 20 incidents of violence and intimidation against Christian places of worship across the country in 2017 and over 190 incidents of religious violence against churches, clergy and Christians since 2015. Many of these incidents have been documented on the NCEASL website.[3] The NCEASL press release also highlighted the “alarming increase in the number of incidents led against Muslims”.

On 31 May 2017, the Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka wrote to the President, drawing his attention to the “spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship in the recent past” and expressing grave concern about acts of violence and aggression targeting the Muslim community.[4] The Commission requested the President to “give urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.” This clearly doesn’t seem to have happened.

Lakshan’s brave expose and reprisals from President and Minister

On 14 June 2017, during a the TV talk show titled “Aluth Parlimenthuwa (new parliament)”, Lakshan highlighted that Muslim and Christian places of worship are under attack and that 195 attacks against Christians have been reported since 8 January 2015.[5] Lakshan has been a determined and long standing campaigner and advocate on the rights of religious minorities. He often travels far to rural areas, interacts with victimized communities, publicizes their plight, and appears in courts across the country on numerous cases, during this Government and under the previous Government. Although he was referring to the NCEASL report, he is personally aware of many such incidents.

His comments on the TV talk show, especially his candid assertion that Buddhist Monks are behind some of these attacks, drew immediate and angry reactions from a hostile anchor and two other panelists. And within days, it also drew negative reactions from President Sirisena and Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana, Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, both of whom were quoted on primetime news of government TV station, ITN on 17 June 2017.[6] President Sirisena said that he had called the Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, and asked from him about attacks on Catholics/Christians (although Lakshan never mentioned attacks on Catholics in the TV talk show). According to President Sirisena, the Cardinal had said that there had been no such attacks. Minister Wijeyadasa misquotes Lakshan as having said 166 attacks against Christians in recent days of this year (what Lakshan actually said is that there have been 195 attacks between 8th January 2015 till todate[7]). The Minister then goes on to say that the Cardinal had claimed no such incidents have happened in Sri Lanka.

Complicity of the Cardinal

The Cardinal on his part has accepted that he doesn’t know that Churches have been attacked to this extent and claims he doesn’t know where this data comes from.[8] This is despite NCEASL incident reports being available publicly for many years, their 27th May 2017 press release and the open letter from the Human Rights Commission etc. The Cardinal’s claim that he is not aware of such large numbers of attacks against Evangelical Christians is difficult to believe, and is likely to be an attempt to sweep these incidents under the carpet, or justify them, given his hostility towards Evangelical Christians. If he is actually ignorant, that shows an extraordinary degree of insensitivity to the rights of religious minorities in Sri Lanka and towards a minority group amongst Christians. His hostility towards some non Catholic Christians is apparent as he refers to them as “fundamentalist Christian groups”. He acknowledges that these Christians may have faced persecution, and that he doesn’t know whether such persecution has been in context of them (fundamentalist Christian groups) building “things like new churches” or trying to “recruit members in areas they had no members”. Cardinal appears to have conveniently forgotten that that for centuries, in Sri Lanka and beyond, thousands of Catholics have been recruited from areas there were never Catholics and that “things like churches” have been built across Sri Lanka by Catholics, including in areas where there had never been Catholics historically.

The President and the Minister appear to be ignorant of the fact that there are many Christian churches in Sri Lanka, and that the Cardinal is only one of the leaders of one of these Churches, the Catholic Church. It’s noteworthy that the Cardinal himself acknowledges that he is only in charge of Catholics in the Western Province (Colombo Archdiocese).[9] There 11 other Catholic dioceses in Sri Lanka led by different Bishops in the other 8 provinces in the country, and there are many other non-Catholic, vibrant Christian communities across the country. Given his limited mandate even within the Catholic Church, his open hostility towards other Christians and his stated ignorance, Cardinal is indeed a very poor choice to consult on matters affecting Christians in Sri Lanka. Indeed, while recognizing Christians as being a numerical religious minority in Sri Lanka, we also need to recognize Evangelicals Christians as a marginalized numerical minority within the Christian community in Sri Lanka, persecuted also by some Catholics, who are the majority Christian community in Sri Lanka.

It appears that both the President and the Minister had not made any effort to contact the NCEASL, even though Lakshan had cited the NCEASL as the institution which had documented the 195 attacks. If the President and the Minister had looked at the NCEASL press statement and incident reports on their website over the years, they would have got a wealth of information about attacks on Evangelical Christians under their watch as well as under the Rajapakse Government. Furthermore, the comments by the President and Minister make no mention of whether they made inquiries with other institutions – such as the Human Rights Commission and the Police – about complaints made to them.

State and Police complicity and refusal to act

An examination of documented incident reports by the NCEASL[10] indicates a range of incidents such as arson, demolition of churches, damage to property, physical assault of clergy and church members causing serious injury, death threats, intimidation, discrimination, forced displacement, and forced closure of churches. Amongst the perpetrators are Buddhist Monks, State officials and Police officers. Police officers have been known to compel Protestant Christian pastors to discontinue religious worship activities.[11] A Police officer, a Hindu religious leader and other community members had also denied burial rites to an Evangelical Christian in a public cemetery.[12]

A common theme in incidents is the seeming reluctance of the Police to act against suspects infringing on the rights of religious minorities. This reluctance appears to be due to influence and pressure exerted by local Buddhist monks, government officials, and politicians. For example, there has been much said and written about the arrest warrants and non-arrest of errant Buddhist Monk, Gnanasara Thero of the BBS, so I will not comment further on it.

Although Sri Lankan law does not require the registration of religious places of worship for any religious body, a circular in October 2008 issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs demanded that all “new constructions” of places of worship should obtain approval from the said Ministry. This has not been withdrawn by the current Government. Since the introduction of the circular, Christian Evangelical churches have faced routine harassment, including forced closures by local government authorities who claim such places of worship as not ‘recognized’ or ‘registered’ with the government. Refusal of ‘recognition’ by the state has deprived thousands of Christians of their right to practice their religion. THE NCEASL incident reports indicate that after this Government came into power, more than 50 incidents involving local government and law enforcement officials involved the use of the October 2008 circular to infringe on the rights of Evangelical Christians. The October 2008 circular appears to be used to target the numerically smaller Christian churches in Sri Lanka and not the Catholic and other numerically larger and politically influential churches.[13]

Threat to remove Lakshan from legal profession

Perhaps the most outrageous parts of this drama is the public threat by the Minister of Justice and Buddhasasana to take legal action to remove Lakshan from the legal profession, unless Lakshan apologizes for his comments within 24 hours.[14] Given that a Minister has no role to play in a process of the dismissal of a lawyer, this is clearly a political threat from the Minister.

I am amongst the many victims of injustice on whose behalf Lakshan has advocated in and out of courts. It is left to be seen if some of the many Christians and others Lakshan has defended, campaigned, and advocated for, will stand by Lakshan. And whether and to what extent the Bar Association in Sri Lanka, religious groups, media organizations and others concerned will respond to this threat, which appears to be a threat not just to Lakshan, but to the legal profession as a whole as well as to free expression, religious freedom and the rule of law.

Ruki Fernando is a member of the Justice, Peace & Integrity of Creation Commission of the (Catholic) Conference of Major Religious Superiors (JPIC-CMRS) and the Ecumenical group, Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM).

[1] http://groundviews.org/2017/05/22/escalating-violence-renewed-assaults-on-the-muslim-community/

[2] http://mailchi.mp/0f02c4911569/press-release-increase-in-attacks-on-religious-minorities-in-sri-lanka-1208153

[3] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[4] http://hrcsl.lk/english/wp-content/uploads/2017/06/Letter-to-H.E.-re-Religious-Intolerance-E.pdf

[5] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (5.47 – 7.33)

[7] http://www.derana.lk/Aluth-Parlimenthuwa-TV-Derana&vid=18325&page=1 (1.16.17 – 1.16.50)

[8] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (1.33-2.07)

[9] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0s3hdvEKe4s&feature=youtu.be (2.23-2.33)

[10] http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[11] http://nceasl.org/pastor-demanded-to-discontinue-religious-activities/

[12] http://nceasl.org/burial-rites-denied-pastor-harassed-at-christian-funeral-2/

[13] The majority of Christians in Sri Lanka are Catholics. The Catholic Bishops are generally recognized as their leaders and have access to powerful politicians. Catholics and Christians in the Churches who are members of the National Christian Council (NCC) are also generally recognized by the government as legitimate and “de-facto” Christians / Churches. But Christians belonging to numerically smaller Churches, many of whom are members of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, are often not recognized by the government and not given opportunities in representative bodies and consultations, even though several of these churches are legal bodies incorporated by acts of parliament.

[14] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aMHziODI3yQ&feature=youtu.be (6.37 – 6.57)

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Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future

Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015, German version at Rise of Buddhist radicalism in Sri Lanka and prospects for the future-Ruki-Sept2015(German+English)

One year ago, in August 2014, when I was at a discussion with about 25 Tamil families of disappeared persons in a church centre, a Buddhist Monk led group invaded the place and disrupted our meeting. We called the Police, but they appeared to be reluctant to disperse the trespassers into a private property. After we insisted, the Police did disperse the trespassers, but still refused to provide us security and compelled us to cancel the meeting. Before and after the meeting, Police and intelligence agencies have intimidated and subjected families of disappeared persons to surveillance. The next day, Buddhist Monks and the group made false allegations against me, families of disappeared persons and other human rights defenders who have been campaigning for truth and justice on disappearances.[1]

 

In 2013, when I was at a silent and peaceful vigil outside the headquarters of Bodu Bala Sena (BBS; loosely translated to Buddhist Power Force / Buddhist Power Army), the Monks and their affiliates tried to disperse us and threaten us together with the Police.[2] Instead of dispersing the Monk led group that was disturbing our peaceful and legitimate vigil that was not causing any obstruction, the Police joined the Monks and their affiliates and dispersed us.

 

Since August 2013, Watarekke Vijitha Thero, a senior Buddhist Monk known for decades for his work to promote harmony amongst different religious groups and rights of religious minorities, has been subjected to serious physical attacks, threats, discrediting and intimidation. He was forced into hiding and hospitalized several times.[3] A press conference, he organized in April 2014, was disrupted by the leader of the BBS in full presence of the Police. These are amongst many such incidents of Buddhist Monks in Sri Lanka taking the law unto their own hands and allowed to unleash violence and hate with total impunity. Other manifestations of religious intolerance in 2013 and 2014 showed a British tourist who was deported and another one stopped from entering Sri Lanka for showing “disrespect” to Buddhism by having a Buddha tattooed on arms.

 

In the first four months of 2015, under the newly elected President Sirisena and his Prime Minister Wickramasinghe, 37 incidents of hate speech and actions against Muslims were reported,[4] and 26 cases of violence against Christians between January and July 2015.[5] In 2014, many more incidents were reported while there is a decline in such incidents under the new government but the figures are still alarming.[6]

 

Riots, perpetrators, impunity

 

In June 2014, widespread mob violence swept through Southern towns of Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Welipanna, and Ambepitiya in Beruwela targeting the Muslim community. Though several homes and shops of local Sinhalese were affected too, a large number of Muslim businesses and homes were targeted. Three Muslims and a Tamil were killed. The violence resulted in loss of life, injuries, destruction and damage to property – including places of worship – to the value of millions of rupees. The state tried to address the physical destruction through reconstruction led by military and there were concerns that the way it was done was aimed at erasing evidence. Scars remain, and the issues of justice, compensation and coexistence persist as on-going challenges. The nearest cause for the riots is believed to be a provocative speech by the leader of the BBS.

 

BBS and other such groups have been directly involved in many such incidents. In most of the incidents, Police were on the spot, being eye witnesses but reduced to mere spectators or become even complicit. Police, government officials and politicians have been directly involved in some incidents. Despite plenty of evidence, including videos, photos, Police has refused to investigate and prosecute the perpetrators. Whereas on 26 May 2015, the leader of the BBS was arrested, and although he was released on bail, this was an indicator that the group and others alike may not further enjoy the immunity they enjoyed under the Rajapakses.

 

Why such involvement by Buddhists into public and political affairs? Without going into historical details, it may be worth to mention that since the end of the 19th century, Buddhism started as a movement to counter all kind of foreign impositions. The so called ‘Panadura-debate’ between the Monk Migettuwatte Guananda Thera and a Catholic priest met the nerve of the Sinhala majority. Buddhism became a platform for ‘national ownership’. Secondly, religious affiliation is to a large extent coincident with the ethnic background; with exceptions, of course. In our context, Sinhalese nationalist interests identify Buddhism as their basic ethic source, and given a conducive societal and political environment, they do not hesitate to turn Buddhism into a spearhead meeting Buddhist monks’ interest to maintain the religious dominance.

 

This complex mixture of interests is reflected in constitutional law. The Sri Lankan constitution guarantees every person the freedom to thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or adopt a religion or belief of the person’s choice.[7] The constitution provides freedom for every person to manifest his (or her) religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching, alone or with others.[8] However, the same constitution explicitly says that the Republic of Sri Lanka shall give Buddhism the ”foremost place” and that it will be the duty of the state to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana.[9] Although the constitution says this has to be done while assuring to all religions the rights granted in Articles 10 and 14 (1-e) mentioned above, Buddhism has been given priority and privileges within the state. So far, no government or politician has dared to challenge this provision or suggested to reform this.

 

Buddhists in politics

 

Sri Lanka’s Northern Province is predominantly Hindu (more than 74%), with a significant amount of Christians (19%), according to official statistics in 2012.[10] The number of Muslims would have gone down, after the eviction of all Muslims in the North by the LTTE in 1990. But even according to the 1981 statistics, Muslims were less than 5% of the Northern population. The number of Buddhists in the North was less than 3% in 1981 and also 2012. There has been few Buddhist temples and places of worship, including some significant ones such as the ”Nagadeepa”. But the end of the war had seen a resurgence of Buddhist domination in the North, with new temples, statues and other erections and structures. Most of this has been done hand in hand with large scale militarization, with the military being directly involved and supporting the erection and maintenance of such structures, and Buddhist Monks who had come to stay in the North. Even under the new government, there were reports of attempts to establish Buddhist structures with help of the military.[11]

 

Buddhist Monks serving as elected political representatives has been a phenomenon that has caused controversy in Sri Lanka for the last couple of decades. The first Buddhist Monk in parliament, Ven. Baddegama Samitha Thero, came from a leftist tradition, and is known to be a strong advocate of religious harmony and rights of religious minorities.[12] Buddhist politics came to be identified with racism and extremism with the rise of the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU; National Heritage Party), which 2004 won 9 seats in the parliament with 5.97% of votes[13], a significant number for a new party. What may have been its predecessor, the Sihala Urumaya (Sinhala Nationalists), had won just one seat for 1.47% of votes in 2000.[14] After 2004, JHU representation in parliament gradually declined, with some defections and splits. In the recent election on 17th August, the different factions of the JHU contested as part of alliances of the two main parties, the United National Party (UNP) and the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP).

 

The BBS and its leader also contested the August 17th parliamentary elections under the banner of Bodu Jana Peramuna (Buddhist People’s Front) but was routed, winning only 0.18% of the votes and not being able to win a single seat[15]. This was considered a decisive defeat and rejection of the BBS as well as Buddhist extremism. In the January 2015 presidential elections, President Sirisena won large majority of the non Buddhist votes, receiving massive percentages of 87% and 89.8% in Muslim dominated areas in Mutur and Kalmunai in the Eastern Province.

 

Challenge to Buddhists in Sri Lanka and abroad

 

Many Buddhists in Sri Lanka may not agree with the violence and dominance espoused by some Monks, Buddhist groups, or political parties. Nevertheless, there has been a resounding silence in the context of such violence and domination. The few exceptions, such as my friend Vijitha Thero mentioned above, had to face serious physical attacks, threats, intimidation and discrediting, with very little support from within the Buddhist community. Last year, I was invited by a British friend, a Buddhist, to give two talks to British Buddhists. Both groups were quite shocked to know about this dimension of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Buddhists outside Sri Lanka, some of whom come to Sri Lanka to learn and experience Buddhism, do not appear to be keen to address the violent and dominant aspects of the Sri Lankan Buddhism.

 

If Buddhism is to return to its values of ”Metha, Karuna, Muditha” [loving kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy], its genuine adherents will have to stand up and counter the aggressive and dominant aspects of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, even if it is practiced by few. The routing of the BBS in the August elections and defeat of Rajapakse in the January elections was a beginning, but much needs to be done to consolidate that and prevent the ugly rearing of Buddhist extremism again.

 

Ruki Fernando

rukiii@gmail.com

@rukitweets

www.rukiiiii.wordpress.com

(Article for “Sudasien” magazine in German. Nr. 3-4/2015)

[1]              http://groundviews.org/2014/08/07/mob-disrupts-meeting-of-families-of-disappeared-police-government-hound-participants/

[2]              http://groundviews.org/2013/04/14/protecting-violent-protesters-and-dispersing-peaceful-protesters-new-role-for-police-and-some-buddhists-in-sri-lanka/

[3]              http://groundviews.org/2014/06/20/did-the-bbs-attack-vijitha-thero-again/

[4]              http://nceasl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/Incidents_Jan-April_Final.pdf

[5]              http://nceasl.org/category/incident-reports/

[6]              For example, 214 incidents against Muslims were reported in 2014 (Source: Secretariat for Muslims)

[7]              Article 10 of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[8]              Article 14 (1-e) of the constitution (Chapter iii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_03_Amd.htm

[9]              Article 9 of the constitution (Chapter ii), http://www.priu.gov.lk/Cons/1978Constitution/Chapter_02_Amd.html

[10]           https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_Province,_Sri_Lanka#Religion

[11]           http://www.tamilguardian.com/article.asp?articleid=14956

[12]           See for example http://www.newmuthur.com/2013/11/a-rally-for-unity-led-by-ven-baddegama.html, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPbQpUDmUN0&feature=youtube_gdata_player (in Sinhalese)

[13]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2004.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2004.html

[14]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/island2000.html and http://www.slelections.gov.lk/composition2000.html

[15]           http://www.slelections.gov.lk/2015GE/AIVOT.html