Ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Sri Lanka, many allegations of human rights abuses committed by the Sri Lankan state are coming to a head. Two governments, Canada and India, have decided to boycott the meeting due to these unresolved allegations. Among the allegations, abuse of religious minorities, including Sri Lanka’s Christian minority, continues to be reported by pastors across the island nation. Intimidation, beatings and forced conversion are only some of the types of persecuted these pastors are facing as the Sri Lankan government does little to assist them.
11/17/2013 Sri Lanka (BBC) – The streets of Colombo are glistening for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm). But controversy still rages over war crimes allegations, press freedom, judicial independence and the safety of minorities. The BBC’s Charles Haviland reports on the rights issues that refuse to go away.
New fountains are flowing, there are new pavements and new street lamps have been constructed. A motorway has just opened linking the airport to Colombo for the first time.
Colombo’s violence-scarred past is becoming a mere memory. Many Sri Lankans are proud to be welcoming the Commonwealth leaders and see the summit as a tribute to a president many revere for his victory after 26 years of conflict with separatist Tamil Tigers.
But for all the burnished infrastructure, there is disquiet under the surface.
The summit’s attendance list has narrowed, with Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper boycotting the event over rights abuses. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has also said he will not attend.
The BBC’s Fergal Keane reports from Sri Lanka on alleged attacks on journalists and activists
Journalists and human rights workers continue to report intimidation. A BBC correspondent based in northern Sri Lanka was recently questioned for hours by the anti-terrorism police.
A senior Colombo-based journalist fled the island after two raids on her home: During one, she and her family were threatened at knifepoint.
Disappearances remain unsolved and allegations of torture in state custody – often backed by forensic evidence – continue to emerge.
And members of religious minorities are being attacked in a trend boosted by the war victory.
The spate of assaults on Muslims and demonstrations against them by Sinhalese Buddhist hardliners have been well reported.
But now Christians are coming forward to report attacks which have long been happening, but local media barely mention then.
In Colombo I meet a pastor from a small church. He does not want his name used and is here because he is afraid to receive me in his village.
“Two Buddhist monks rushed into the church,” he says in Sinhala, recounting a recent incident during a service.
“Twenty-five or 30 villagers followed. They yelled insults at us, calling us traitors for preaching the word of God. They shouted ‘this is a Buddhist nation, a Buddhist village’.
“They threatened to kill us, they said they would burn my house down when they came back.”
He says the monks started physically assaulting him. He knelt down facing the wall and prayed.
The clergyman is from Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese majority – Christians straddle the ethnic divide.
The pastor says he has since seen the monk who led the attack on television with President Rajapaksa. He was able to identify the attackers but says the police told him that if any of the attackers were arrested that would create religious controversy and an ugly scenario.
Yamini Ravindran of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) has documented 65 attacks on Christians so far this year.
“Pastors have been threatened, subjected to duress and forced closure of churches, various forms of discriminations… And even some Christian believers have been forced to recant their faith.”
Minorities feel uneasy because the government rarely condemns such assaults or apprehends the culprits. Hindus, who are Tamil, are in a similar situation.
The government recently demolished a small Hindu temple in the town of Dambulla, in an area the authorities have declared sacred to Buddhists.
A Tamil politician, N Kumaraguruparan, says the Hindus appealed to President Rajapaksa against the demolition, then asked for time to perform final religious rites. Both appeals went unheeded.
In a recent visit to Sri Lanka, the UN’s human rights chief, Navi Pillay, criticised what she called the “surge in incitement of hatred and violence against religious minorities… and the lack of swift action against the perpetrators”.
The government denies committing war crimes or trampling on human rights.