The United States has made a push to ensure the current government protects religious minorities in the country.
This comes in the wake of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) attempting to raise its head and voice once again.
A new US State Department report had noted that the US Ambassador to Sri Lanka had urged government leaders at the most senior levels, including President Maithripala Sirisena, to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against religious minorities and to protect religious freedom for all citizens.
The annual State Department report on religious freedom noted that in April last year the US embassy in Colombo cosponsored with the Buddhist and Pali University a two-day International Conference on Religious Tolerance and Harmony, which was attended by more than 500 delegates from India, Maldives, Thailand, China, Pakistan, and Burma. The event’s keynote speaker was a prominent U.S. citizen involved in interfaith activities. Participants examined religiously related threats to national reconciliation such as the 2014 anti-Muslim attacks in Aluthgama and the role of hardline Buddhist groups in the political sphere. They also discussed strategies to reduce threats to religious freedom and promote equality and tolerance of all religious traditions.
The report said the Ambassador and other embassy officials met regularly with a broad range of religious leaders and groups to encourage interfaith dialogue and efforts at reconciliation. The embassy held events to promote cooperative engagement, including visits by the Ambassador to temples and other places of worship, interfaith panel discussions, workshops, and conferences involving several thousand religious leaders, community members, and government officials over the year.
In addition, the embassy worked with local NGOs to form District Interreligious Reconciliation Committees with moderate leaders from across the religious spectrum throughout the country. The embassy sponsored the participation of the vice-chancellor of the Buddhist and Pali University, in a U.S.-funded exchange programme on interfaith dialogue, which took place in September and October last year. The programme brought together eight interfaith religious leaders from across the south and central Asia region to discuss issues facing multi-religious societies and strategies to promote greater religious tolerance.
The National Christian Evangelical Alliance (NCEASL) documented a total of 87 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year2015. In 2014, Christian groups reported 96 incidents.
The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) recorded 82 total incidents of hate speech, acts of discrimination, attempts to desecrate or destroy Muslim religious edifices, and verbal insults or use of physical force to impede Muslim cultural practices and rituals through the end of September last year, according to the US report. This represented a 62 percent reduction from the number of incidents reported for all of 2014, although data for the final quarter of the year has yet to be published. There were no reported deaths related to interreligious disputes throughout the year, in contrast to at least three in 2014.
According to a 2015 July 23 NCEASL incident report, approximately 12 Buddhist monks and members of the local community harassed the pastor of an Assemblies of God church in Hambantota District. The monks came to the pastor’s premises to interrogate him regarding the church’s religious activities. The group also attempted to obtain a letter from the pastor stating he was engaged in activities other than Christian worship on church grounds. Unidentified assailants threw stones and set fire to the pastor’s house and vehicle. The pastor lodged a complaint with the police, but as of the end of the year, no action had been taken.
In October members of a mosque in a Muslim majority area of central Colombo sought to prevent a Hindu temple, Sri Muththumaariamman Kovil, from hosting a procession as part of a traditional Hindu festival. The festival was celebrated in previous years, but for the first time the leadership of the temple also planned to hold a procession. Local Muslims protested the procession, stating the road was too narrow. BBS and the Hindu Federation of Sri Lanka sent a letter to the police expressing solidarity with the temple and criticising the activities of the Muslims, whom they said were extremists. After the intervention of a senior government minister between the trustees of the mosque and the temple, the parties agreed to allow the procession to proceed as planned.
The BBS called for the government to remove the Muslim shrine at the Kurugala Monastery on the grounds of protecting the monastery under the Antiquities Ordinance. During a media briefing on February 10 to announce the BBS’ campaign for the monastery, BBS leader Gnanasara Thero accused Muslims of being involved in narcotics and human trafficking as well as illegal weapons sales. He was also quoted as saying, “We will not allow these infidel Muslims to run riot in Kurugala.” Members of the group also called for banning the niqab, claiming it posed a threat to national security.
The US State Department report said that while a less prominent public voice than previously, the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the country’s Sinhalese Buddhist population and propagated views hostile toward members of religious and ethnic minorities. For example, BBS General Secretary Ven. Galagodaththe Gnanasara Thero regularly made inflammatory statements about “Islamic invasion and aggression” and “forced conversions” by Christian groups as posing an existential threat to the country’s Buddhism.
The US report also noted that on October 19 last year, during its two-day visit to the country, the American Jewish Committee launched the Sri Lankan-Jewish Friendship Association. On November 6, in Mardana, a group of Muslim organisations protested against the association’s formation. The protesters objected to the role played by government ministers in the association’s establishment, particularly Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs Harsha De Silva. They demanded any agreement reached over the association’s establishment be withdrawn due to opposition to Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories.