Christian persecution on the island nation of Sri Lanka has seen a dramatic increase in the past year. In the last four months alone, over 30 churches have been attacked by Buddhist extremists attempting to maintain Sri Lanka’s Buddhist heritage. Recently, the courts in Sri Lanka ruled in favor of a church that brought charges against a group of Buddhist extremists for attacking their church. Is this a development in the right direction?
8/8/2013 Sri Lanka (Baptist Press) – It was just a normal Sunday. Around 75 people gathered in the house rented as their church building for worship. Praise music wafted out the door. Prayers lifted to heaven. Pastor Saman Perera* stood behind the pulpit and asked the congregation to open their Bibles.
That’s when “normal” came to a crashing end.
Local Sri Lankan authorities stormed in from every exit, demanding the church service stop. Church members sat in shock until a bald man in saffron robes appeared. With the entrance of the village’s head monk, people hid in back rooms, jumped out open windows or knocked chairs over to get out the door only to meet up with an angry mob of nearly 1,000 yielding sticks and stones.
“Leave or be killed,” the mob chanted.
That was nearly four months ago, yet Perera recounts the story as if it happened yesterday. In a way, it did — he relives it with each visit to the courtroom where he must face those who violently closed his church.
Lawsuits, filed by groups of pastors against the attackers, claim that Sri Lanka’s constitution calls for freedom of religion and that their churches should be allowed to meet. The high court agreed, ruling in their favor Aug. 2.
Despite the favorable ruling, everyone is holding their breath to see whether the violent attacks on churches by Buddhist extremists will stop. The targeted attacks are becoming more and more commonplace and extremists have vowed in local newspaper reports to shut down every church in the South.
Open Doors USA, which closely monitors the persecuted church, reports that more than 30 churches have been attacked since Perera’s.
The pastor explains that when his church was attacked, local authorities ordered them not to operate any longer because they had not been authorized by the state. While registration of religious organizations is not mandatory in this island nation, the government has been contemplating bringing all religious groups under regulation for over a year.
According to the 2011 census, more than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20.8 million is Buddhist. Christians number around 7 percent — Catholic 6 percent and Protestant 1 percent — while Muslims make up a little less than 10 percent.
Sri Lanka is the world’s oldest continually Buddhist nation, and extremists told a TIME reporter last month that they want it to stay that way. As a result, persecution is on the rise. Attacks on Muslims have hit the headlines, but the increasing incidence of Christian persecution has received very little attention.
“People are afraid to step foot in a church or any religious place,” Perera says. “We cannot start new churches. Churches cannot rent or buy houses anymore.”
The judge’s ruling gave the churches in the court case permission to begin worship services again and registered their buildings as official churches. Perera adds that the judge warned local authorities not to disturb their prayers again.
“Our constitution gives us freedom of religion, but in practice it is Buddhist and there will not be any other religion welcome,” the pastor warns. “This [persecution] is going to spread quickly from one district to another.”
The veteran pastor is no stranger to persecution. The country suffered through two decades of civil war. Pastors had to walk the perimeter of their church building to check for landmines every Sunday morning. Before the 2004 tsunami hit the island, churches were burned, bombed and shut down. Things settled down and Sri Lanka disappeared off the World Watch List’s top 50 persecuted countries.
But now, it has started up again. Almost every week, a church or Muslim business is attacked in some way or another. Despite this persecution, Perera assures that the church closings and attacks have not hampered spreading the Gospel.
“God has been preparing us for this persecution all along. He knew!” Perera says, suppressing a chuckle of amazement. “He opened our minds to a new way of doing ‘church’ last year. Before this even started happening, we were training lay leaders to lead house churches in their homes.”