May 12 (Compass Direct) Unruly mobs have attacked three churches over the past fortnight, in one incident setting car tires on fire in front of a Methodist church to prevent people from entering for Sunday worship.
On Saturday (May 6), a Buddhist monk led a mob to a site where members of the United Christian Fellowship in Poddala, Galle district, had begun building a community hall on land they had purchased in the village. The monk threatened the pastor and a construction worker; one man grabbed the construction worker by the collar and assaulted him.
The mob said they would set fire to the building if construction continued, despite the pastor informing them that it was a community hall, not a church.
Church staff reported the incident to police. Construction is on hold due to fears of another attack.
Methodist Church Attacked Again
Buddhist monks led a second mob to attack a Methodist church in Piliyandala, southeast of Colombo, on April 30. The church was previously attacked on April 23; protest rallies were also held outside the church on April 9 and 16. (See Compass Direct, Sri Lankas Anti-Conversion Bill Revived in Parliament, April 26.)
On April 30, the Buddhist monks and their people did not allow us to have the service, a local source told Compass. They came early in the morning and gathered around the church, not allowing any of us to go in.
The mob set car tires on fire on the road outside the church as a scare tactic to keep people away from the building. When church members phoned the police, about 30 policemen arrived but said they could do nothing until they received instructions from their superintendent.
The superintendent had a quick meeting with us and said if we really wanted to hold the service, he would order the police to give us protection, the source continued. But if they came against us, the police might have to take violent action.
Church members were advised to make an official complaint, noting that the police had advised them not to hold the service in the interests of maintaining peace. The police then arrested 10 people in the crowd and remanded them on a bail fee of 25,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US$243) per person. The police felt the bail fee might act as a deterrent against further attacks. All 10 appeared in court on Monday (May 8).
Church leaders have since contacted Buddhist leaders and hope to set up negotiation meetings with the senior monk in the village.
An Assembly of God church in Piliyandala is also facing intense opposition. Villagers launched a poster campaign in April, threatening mass protests if the church does not close down.
On April 9, a small crowd of 24 people gathered outside the church and chanted Buddhist prayers.
Church leaders alerted police, who arrived at the scene and granted permission for a short peaceful protest under supervision.
According to the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, this same church was bombed and completely burned to the ground on September 25, 2003. When the church was rebuilt, villagers took church members to court in 2004 with the aim of closing it down. The court, however, ruled that Christians had a legal right to gather for worship.
Violent mobs have carried out at least 160 attacks on churches or Christian institutions since 2002, when Buddhist monks first launched their campaign to introduce anti-conversion legislation.
A 19-member committee appointed by the Sri Lankan Parliament is still reviewing a bill that would outlaw forcible conversion. The review committee was appointed on April 5.
The Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party) first introduced its draft Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion to Parliament in July 2004 as an attempt to halt conversions from Buddhism to Christianity. The bill called for prison sentences of up to five years and/or a stiff fine for anyone found guilty of converting others by force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means.
It also encouraged members of the public to report cases of suspected forced conversion.
Minority groups challenged the constitutionality of the bill, and the Supreme Court ruled in August 2005 that it was incompatible with Article 10 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of though, conscience and religion to every citizen.
An amended draft was tentatively approved in May 2005, but presidential elections in November 2005 and a breakdown in peace negotiations with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam slowed passage of the legislation.