SRI LANKA: RASH OF ATTACKS ON CHRISTIANS REPORTED


Assaults by local mobs, including Buddhist monks, surge.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, August 17 (Compass Direct News) – Attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka have surged noticeably in recent weeks, following the government’s defeat of Tamil separatists in May.

Attacks were reported in Puttlam, Gampaha and Kurunegala districts in western Sri Lanka, central Polonnaruwa district, Mannar district in the north and Matara district in the south, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).

Most recently, attackers on July 28 set fire to an Assemblies of God church in Norachcholai, Puttlam district, destroying the building. The pastor received frantic calls from neighbors at about 8:45 p.m. reporting that the building was in flames, echoing a similar arson attack almost a year ago that destroyed the original building on the site.

Church members have registered a complaint with police, but at press time no arrests had been made.

When a pastor of a Foursquare Gospel church and his wife visited a church member in Radawana village, Gampaha district during the third week of July, a 50-strong mob gathered at the door and shouted that they would not tolerate any further Christian activity in the village, NCEASL reported. The mob then prevented the couple from leaving the house, hit the pastor with a rod and threw a bucket of cow dung at him.

The disturbance continued for two hours before police finally answered repeated requests for assistance and arrived at the house, arresting three people who were later released.

Earlier, on June 28, a mob consisting of more than 100 people, including Buddhist monks, surrounded the home of a female pastor of another Foursquare Gospel church in the village, according to the NCEASL. At the time the pastor, whose name was withheld for security reasons, and her husband were away. Their 13-year-old daughter watched helplessly as the mob broke in, shouted insults and destroyed chairs and other furniture.

Hearing that their home was under attack, the parents rushed to get police help, but the mob had dispersed by the time officers arrived. Police called the pastor into the Gampaha police station for questioning on July 9 and July 11; on the second occasion, protestors surrounded her and other pastors who accompanied her, spitting on them and initially preventing them from entering the police station.

Later, in the presence of Buddhist monks and other protestors, the pastor was forced to sign a document promising not to host worship services for non-family members.

Also in Gampaha district, a mob on July 14 destroyed the partially-built home of Sanjana Kumara, a Christian resident of Obawatte village. On receiving a phone call from a friend, Kumara rushed to the scene to find the supporting pillars of the house pulled down, damaging the structure beyond repair.

Villagers launched a smear campaign against Kumara on July 6, after he invited his pastor and other Christians to bless the construction of his home. As the group prayed, about 30 people entered the premises and demanded that they stop worshiping. The mob then threatened to kill Kumara, falsely accusing him of constructing a church building.

On July 8, Kumara discovered that unknown persons had broken into a storage shed on the property, stealing tools and painting a Buddhist blessing on the walls. Police were reluctant to record Kumara’s complaint until a lawyer intervened.

The Sri Lanka population is 69.1 percent Buddhist, 7.6 percent Muslim, 7.1 percent Hindu and 6.2 percent Christian, with the remaining 10 percent unspecified.

Sword Attack

In Markandura village, Kurunegala district, seven men wielding swords on July 12 attacked caretaker Akila Dias and three other members of the Vineyard Community church, causing serious injury to church members and church property. Dias and others received emergency care at a local hospital before being transferred to a larger hospital in the area for treatment.

Church members filed a complaint with police, identifying one of the attackers as the same man who had assaulted the church pastor and another worker with a machete in March; at that time police had arrested the man but released him on bail. Several other attacks followed, including one on June 29 in which the church premises were desecrated with human feces. Documents were also circulated on July 18 describing the church as a divisive force aiming to destroy peace in the local community.

On the night of July 12, attackers tore off roof tiles from the church building and threw them to the ground, leaving it exposed to the elements.

On July 5, a mob of around 100 people, half of them Buddhist monks, forcibly entered an Assemblies of God church in Dickwella, Matara district, warning church members to cease all Christian worship in the area and pasting notices on the walls declaring that “any form of Christian worship in this place is completely prohibited.”

The congregation has filed a complaint with local police.

On June 23, a Foursquare Gospel pastor from Polonnaruwa district was stopped by a group of men riding motorcycles as he drove home after attending a late evening prayer meeting. Three men wearing masks attacked him with knives and shouted, “This is your last day! If we let you live, you will convert the whole town!”

The pastor sustained severe cuts to his arms as he warded off blows aimed at his neck, before driving away to seek medical help. Police in Polonnaruwa have initiated an inquiry.

Finally, in Thalvapadu village, Mannar district, members of an Apostolic church were dedicating their newly constructed building on June 7 when a mob of about 300 people forcibly entered the premises, threatening the pastor and congregation. They demolished the new church building, throwing roofing sheets and bricks onto a plot of adjacent land.

When church members filed a complaint, police arrested seven of the attackers; a case has been filed with a local court.

Report from Compass Direct News 

Advertisements

SRI LANKA: PARLIAMENT TO VOTE ON ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS


Draft ‘Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions’ enters final phase.

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka, January 26 (Compass Direct News) – The Sri Lankan Parliament may soon enact laws designed to restrict religious conversions.

A standing committee assigned to consider a draft “Bill for the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions” presented its report to Parliament on Jan. 6, suggesting minor amendments that clear the way for a final vote in February. The provisions of the bill criminalize any act to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another religion by the use of force, fraud or allurement. Those found guilty of breaking the law could be imprisoned for up to seven years and/or fined up to 500,000 rupees (US$4,425).

The Ven. Omalpe Sobitha Thero, a member of the Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya party (JHU or National Heritage Party), first proposed the draft in 2004. While the JHU claims the bill is designed to stop unethical conversions, civil rights groups and Christian churches say it will infringe on the constitutional rights of freedom of religion and legitimize harassment of religious minorities.

Buddhists form a 70 percent majority in Sri Lanka, with Roman Catholics constituting 7 percent and Protestant Christians only 1 percent of the population.

After the first reading of the bill in Parliament in August 2004, 22 petitions were filed in the Supreme Court challenging the validity of the draft legislation.

The Supreme Court determined the draft bill to be valid except for clauses 3 and 4(b), which it deemed unconstitutional. These clauses required any person who converted or participated in a religious conversion ceremony to report to a government official and prescribed punishment for failure to report such conversions.

The draft was then referred to a parliamentary standing committee for further review. In its report, presented to the House on Jan. 6, the committee made a few amendments to the original draft in keeping with Supreme Court recommendations. The most notable amendment was the deletion of the need to report conversions and the punishment prescribed for not reporting them.

These amendments paved the way for the draft bill to be passed by a simple majority vote when it is presented for a final reading in Parliament this February.

Chief Opposition Whip Joseph Michael Perera, however, has requested a two-day debate on the draft bill on grounds that it would affect all religions.

 

Fulfilling Campaign Promises

The JHU, founded and led by Buddhist clergymen, made anti-conversion legislation a cornerstone of its debut election campaign in 2004, when it won nine seats in Parliament. With the possibility of an early general election this year, the bill has become a matter of political survival for the JHU.

At a press briefing on Jan. 7, Ven. Ellawela Medhananda Thero, a Buddhist monk and Member of Parliament representing the JHU, called on all political parties to vote in favor of the bill.

“People expected us to fulfill two goals,” he said. “One was to end unethical conversions and the other was to liberate the country from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. That is why we entered politics.”

Ven. Medhananda Thero added that the purpose of the bill was to protect all major religions in the country from fundamentalists and unethical conversions.

Sri Lanka’s Christian community and civil rights groups have strongly objected to the draft legislation. Far from stemming alleged forced conversions, they claim the bill will become a weapon of harassment through misapplication, limiting the fundamental rights of thought, conscience and religion. These rights include the right to adopt a religion and the right to practice, observe and teach religion.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) said in a recent press statement that, “It is our gravest concern that this bill will grant legal sanction for the harassment of religious communities or individuals, and offer convenient tools of harassment for settling personal disputes and grudges, totally unrelated to acts of alleged ‘forced’ conversion.”

 

Banning Compassion

According to Section 2 of the draft bill, the offer of any temptation such as a gift, cash or any other gratification to convert or attempt to convert a person from one religion to another is punishable with up to seven years of prison and a maximum fine of 500,000 rupees (US$4,425) – equal to approximately three years’ wages for the average Sri Lankan citizen.

Sri Lankan Christians have repeatedly expressed concern that key sections of the draft bill are open to wide and subjective interpretation that could criminalize not only legitimate religious activity but also legitimate social action by faith-based organizations or individuals.

“A lady who heads a charitable trust caring for orphans asked if she could be charged under this law, since she is a Christian and some of the children she cares for are not,” a lawyer told Compass. “Many people will now think twice before helping the poor or needy, for fear of being accused of committing a criminal act.”

Ironically, on June 4, 2008, in his address to the new Sri Lankan ambassador to the Holy See, Pope Benedict XVI had acknowledged the Sri Lankan government’s appreciation of the Catholic Church’s charity work in the country.

“Such action is a concrete example of the Church’s willing and prompt response to the mission she has received to serve those most in need,” he said. “I commend any future measures which will help guarantee that Catholic hospitals, schools and charitable agencies can continue to care for the sick, the young and the vulnerable regardless of ethnic or religious background.”

He went on to assure the government that “the Church will continue in her efforts to reach out with compassion to all.”

On Jan. 8, at his traditional New Year meeting with all ambassadors to the Holy See, the pope appeared to be addressing concerns over anti-conversion legislation.

“The Church does not demand privileges, but the full application of the principle of religious freedom,” he said. He also called on Asian governments to ensure that “legislation concerning religious communities guarantees the full exercise of this fundamental right, with respect for international norms.”

Since the first draft anti-conversion bill was presented to Parliament in 2004, the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, NCEASL and Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka have repeatedly called for an alternative solution based on inter-faith dialogue with fair representation of all religious communities.

“Enactment of laws to regulate something as intrinsically personal as spiritual beliefs will not contribute towards resolving disagreements and promoting religious harmony,” said Godfrey Yogarajah, executive director of the World Evangelical Alliance Religious Liberty Commission. “On the contrary, it will create mistrust and animosity.”  

Report from Compass Direct News