Sri Lanka (CAM/MNN) — Facing opposition from their Buddhist and Hindu neighbors, Sri Lankan Christians fear their religious rights will erode as extremist groups attempt to shut down churches in the island nation.
According to International Christian Concern's Web site, over 30 churches have been "violently attacked" in 2013 alone. Last year, the organization reported 52 incidents of Christian persecution.
Accounts of harassment against Christians have increased with the resurgence of nationalism and a backlash against anything considered a "foreign religion." Sarla Mahara, the South Asia Director for Christian Aid Mission (your link to indigenous missions), explains, "They are very hostile toward Christians because it has a colonial past. Sri Lanka has been colonized by Portuguese, Dutch, and British. After the independence, the country really tried to be Sinhalese oriented." Sinhalese Buddhists, victorious in 2009 after a 20-year civil war with Tamil separatists in the north, view Western influences as a threat to their traditional culture.
As minorities in the predominantly Buddhist society, both Christians and Muslims suffer persecution. However, evangelical churches seem particularly targeted. Although the trouble is not enough to warrant a place on the Open Doors World Watch List (top 50 countries around the world where persecution of Christians is the worst), the shift is worth noting. Mahara explains, "Comparatively, the persecution is not that bad, but we have noted more persecution in the recent days. Because of the growth of churches, they see more people coming to Christ, they see more house churches, so the movement is more, and that's why I think the persecution is more, as well."
A Christian Aid ministry partner in Sri Lanka e-mailed Mahara this week with news of isolated attacks against Protestant congregations. The ministry has been instrumental in training missionaries and planting churches throughout the country.
Six Christians were injured and their Methodist church was damaged June 16 when a worship service allegedly grew too loud and angered a group of Hindus holding a religious celebration of their own.
"During the Sunday service, the church used a sound system. At the same time, Hindus were celebrating thiruvela in a nearby temple. The Hindus asked the church people to stop the sound system, but they didn't turn it off. Therefore, the Hindu people assaulted six church people and attacked the church," the ministry partner wrote.
He expressed concern that the group's aggression against the Christians was politically motivated, and he asked for prayer.
Numerous reports indicate local officials are ordering the closure of churches because they have not been "authorized" by the government. While the registration of religious organizations is not mandatory, pressure is mounting to require all such groups to come under the watchful eye of the state.
In his e-mail, the ministry leader requested assistance from Christian Aid for a congregation in southern Sri Lanka that rents a house for its worship services. The owner intends to sell the house, creating a hardship since the congregation is registered to worship at that location only. They are not permitted to simply move into another rented facility. However, the congregation is entitled by law to purchase the building and could continue holding services there if they raise the needed funds.
The ministry leader reported an attack on a Pentecostal church in May that left the pastor and some of the members injured. The incident marks the second time that church has been targeted.
Also in May, pastors in the Hampantota district feared the worst when they were called together for a meeting with government officials, police, and Buddhist monks. The authorities planned to close all churches in the district except those belonging to established, mainline congregations.
While churches in Hampantota were permitted to remain open, as a result of the meeting those fellowships must now register with the local governing body to obtain legal status. The ruling adds concern that more districts will impose similar regulations or limit the spread of house churches.
Mahara sees a silver lining in the hostilities. "Most of the evangelical groups are not afraid of the persecution because persecution is part of the Christian life. As the Lord says, ‘you will be persecuted for my name's sake.'" Instead of undermining the evangelistic efforts of churches, "They're getting to know each other better in the country. They're spread out, they're in minority. I think that there's been a new unity among evangelicals, and more awareness of who is where and how these attacks are happening."
"Persecution really brings out a stronger church. With the war over, people can travel freely again and there's much more potential for the gospel to go across the country," said Mahara.
"These believers are very committed. They know their calling," she continued. "Their work may be slowed, they may be hindered, they may not have a church building right away, but if they're not allowed to build in one place, they will build somewhere else. The gospel is taking root. "
Christian Aid currently assists five ministries and a seminary in Sri Lanka. Collectively, these ministries have planted 45 churches. Right now, the two greatest needs: prayer and funding.
Believers in Sri Lanka are asking prayer for boldness, wisdom and strength. "They're really trying to reflect Christ through their lives, loving their neighbors." The funding? A lot of problems can be solved if the church can build its own small facility. Mahara observes, "Unless they have their own church building, it is very difficult to meet in a rented place. A lot of people have to move several times a year, just because the landlord would not allow them to have loud music or worship nor have so many people come into the house."
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