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A Special Report by ICC
5/5/2013 Washington D.C. (International Christian Concern) – Even as Sri Lanka is engaged in a difficult process of post-civil-war reconciliation, disturbing reports are emerging of Christians being targeted for persecution by Buddhist fundamentalists.
On March 18, a large mob attacked a pastor’s home while the family was away and began damaging the property, demanding an end to the church services in the home. When his wife Aruna and their two children returned, they called the police. While four officers arrived, they were unable to control the mob, which refused to leave until Aruna promised an end to the worship meetings at their home. It wasn’t the first time they were attacked. Over the course of four years, the family was forced to move six times and one of their homes was fire-bombed, according to Release International.
Pastor Pradeep Kumara was away in Colombo, appearing in court for a case he filed over an attack against his church in late 2012, which may have fueled the fresh attack.
In the previous incident, a group of Buddhists accosted and threatened him, and told him to close down the church. The next morning, they returned and attacked the building during a worship service. They damaged equipment, furniture and vehicles, and warned Pastor Kumara, who was injured during the attack, saying: “Leave this place or be killed,” according to Barnabas Aid.
Rise in Persecution
In March 2013, more than 10 churches faced persecution in the form of threats, disturbances, harassment or attacks, mostly from Buddhist monks but sometimes even with the assistance or support of the police or a mob. The sudden spike in incidents of persecution against churches in such a short period of time signals the possibility of an organized campaign against Christians that is being carried out by Buddhist fundamentalists.
Christian persecution by Buddhist monks is not uncommon, as evidenced by the severe attack on a senior pastor and his wife by a mob of 40 men, accompanied by five Buddhist monks and a local government official. The pastor was beaten and threatened with death if he did not stop spreading Christianity.
In June 2012, 14-year-old Amila Tharanga Thilakaratne, the only Christian schoolboy in his class, was severely beaten by a Buddhist monk who left him bleeding from the ear when he professed his faith in the classroom, according to Barnabas Aid.
But such incidents, though severe, were sporadic in Sri Lanka. What is troubling today is the increase in the severity and frequency of the attacks, raising concerns over the motivations behind them and the safety of Christians.
Although, Buddhism is the national religion, the government has expressed its desire to provide religious freedom to all. This is a claim that is severely undermined by the apathy of the police, the courts and the judicial system when it comes to cases filed by Christians against their persecutors.
Fundamentalism or Politics?
Buddhist fundamentalism is a bit of an oxymoron because a genuine Buddhist will be hard-pressed to seek endorsement of violence from the Buddha, the essence of whose teaching is said to be compassion. Therefore, the only real motivation for the use of violence by Sri Lankan Buddhists is rooted in politics and ethnic identity.
Buddhist fundamentalists have a strong conviction that Sri Lanka is the historic Buddhist land that should not be shared with anyone else. They want Sri Lanka to be the land of the majority Sinhala ethnic group, with Buddhism as the supreme religion and Sinhala as the official language. As far as they are concerned, Sinhala and Buddhism are inseparable. Christianity is viewed as a product of Western colonialism that threatens their identity, and the practice of Christian evangelism is seen as a threat to their Sinhalese vision for the nation.
On March 24, 2013, Galaboda Aththe Gnanasarathera, of the hardline Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena, said that the country should be ready to rally against what he described as Christian and Muslim extremist groups operating in the country. These comments were related to an announcement made by the Religious Affairs Ministry in Sri Lanka, which intends to introduce legislation enabling the authorities to take action against religious groups that are deemed cults.
The legislation is particularly troubling to evangelical churches, which are not recognized by the Religious Affairs Ministry, making them vulnerable to abuses of the legislation by Buddhists with extreme nationalist agendas.
The sudden increase in persecution only complicates the process of Sri Lanka’s slow recovery from a long and bitter civil war. In 1983, violence broke out between the Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists, taking the lives of tens of thousands. After two decades of fighting, a ceasefire was formalized in February 2002. More violence erupted in 2006, and a military campaign defeated the remnants of Tamil separatists in 2009, which involved possible war crimes but ended the civil war and put the country on course for the long journey of reconciliation and recovery.
Even as the government navigates its way through a difficult healing process, it is tasked with the responsibility of protecting Christians from the increasing hostility of Buddhist fundamentalists. Without an urgent initiative to protect its religious minorities, Sri Lanka runs the risk of empowering an unhealthy nationalistic sentiment that will only subvert its earnest efforts to birth a better nation out of the ashes of war.
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