Rights abuses draw scrutiny in Sri Lanka

By February 4, 2014
(Photo courtesy Open Doors)

(Photo courtesy Open Doors)

Sri Lanka (MNN) — In a country dominated by Buddhists, the Christian (approximately 7%) and Muslim (10%) minorities have long complained of discrimination and attacks. That’s not escaped global notice.

A recent trend seems to show that persecution is on the rise.  The appearance since July 2012 of nationalistic and religious supremacist groups has increased pressure on all religious minorities. Already this year, there have been three violent attacks against churches. Last year saw more than 50 attacks on houses of worship, far more than in years prior.

Open Doors USA president and CEO Dr. David Curry explains, “Sri Lanka has a very strong Buddhist regime that has ruled the country. We’ve seen increasing violent attacks against Christians and Muslims, the religious minorities in the country, so we’re very concerned about it.”

He goes on to explain what’s behind the concern: “The government is deeply wrapped up in the persecution of religious minorities, so it’s not as though Christians can appeal to the police.” That’s especially true when the police are accused of taking part in some of the attacks. What’s more, it seems that justice is not a priority in many of the cases reported to Open Doors’ partners. “The government itself is, at the very least, looking the other way, and in some ways, complicit in the violence against religious minorities,” says Curry.

The hostility toward religious minorities began mounting noticeably in 2004 when a proposed anti-conversion law was submitted by the Jathika Hela Urumaya political party. A leader of that party has been quoted as saying that U.S.- funded Christian missionaries are one of the greatest threats facing Sri Lanka.

(Photo courtesy Gospel For Asia)

(Photo courtesy Gospel For Asia)

According to Gospel For Asia, the bill called for penalties including fines up 500,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($4,425) and/or seven years in prison for anyone who tries to convert a Sri Lankan citizen from one religion to another by using force, fraud or allurement. The harshest punishments are reserved for those convicted of converting women or children.

Hotly debated, revised, and worked over, the bill resurfaced in 2009 and again in 2011. However, the furor died down, and there’s been no visible action or reporting on it for some time.

Even with the small steps made toward keeping the constitutionally guaranteed religious freedom, French media (AFP) reports a top U.S. envoy said democracy is under threat in Sri Lanka and its rights record has deteriorated in the five years since the end of a bloody ethnic war. Will international scrutiny improve the situation? Curry isn’t optimistic. “They have, in some cases, taken a few cursory looks at it, tried to form a commission to look into it, and then let the findings go by the wayside. But one way or the other, this is becoming a very dangerous place for people to practice their Christian faith.”

These same remarks indicated the topic would come up again next month at the United Nations Human Rights council meeting in Geneva. The body will discuss Sri Lanka’s situation as well as what it might take to nudge the country into “reconciliation, justice, and accountability.”

Sri Lanka has a very small group of expat Christians, mainly in Colombo, and a large group of traditional and recognized churches, both Catholic and Protestant. Non-traditional Protestant churches as well as converts from a Buddhist background face the most persecution.

Local officials in Sri Lanka have begun asking established churches to prove their legality in order to be allowed to continue operating. In addition to increased security problems, the country finally made its first appearance on the Open Doors World Watch List, a ranking of 50 countries where the persecution of Christians for religious reasons is most severe. Curry says, “This year, it’s 29th on the list, and it’s largely because of a very militant form of Buddhism that’s practiced there in Sri Lanka. You have a regime that sees itself as the protector of the purity of the Buddhist faith.”

(Photo courtesy Baptist Press)

(Photo courtesy Baptist Press)

As a result, most Christians meet in house churches and are forced to keep a low profile. But with the lackluster response they’ve gotten from the government over the attacks, they’d had enough. On 26 January, more than 2,000 Christians gathered to protest against a perceived lack of religious freedom.

While little may come of the protest, it does show that theirs cannot be the lone voice against the injustice of what’s happening to Christians in Sri Lanka. There is a political front, but the bigger battle, Curry says, is one you don’t see. Pray for change, but in the crucible of persecution, pray that believers would remain bold in their faith. “Prayer changes things. We believe there’s a spiritual solution to this practical problem. So, let’s pray for the folks in Sri Lanka. Let’s pray for their safety and that people will have the freedom to worship and express their faith.”


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