Sri Lankan government minister GL Peiris has tried to justify a wave of attacks on churches and mosques, claiming that these were simply community reactions to unauthorised facilities. The state’s refusal to protect religious minorities further undermines human rights in Sri Lanka overall.
For instance, two churches in Hikkaduwa were attacked during Sunday worship on 12 January. It was claimed that they were violating a 2008 circular by the Ministry of Religious Affairs requiring all new places of worship to be authorised. But as the Colombo Telegraph pointed out, they had been running since the 1990s.
Buddhist monks were involved in the violence, and a distorted form of Buddhism far removed from the Buddha’s teaching of compassion and wisdom has been used to promote hatred. Letting extremism flourish may help boost the regime’s credibility among sections of the majority who are Sinhalese and Buddhist, drawing attention from the government’s economic and political failings. Yet this not only damages what is best in the nation’s heritage but also opens the door to further abuses.
“If unchecked, these alarming trends would cause immeasurable damage and drawback to the country,” warned the Forum for Inter-Faith Dialogue, a multi-faith group in which Buddhist monks have a leading role. Sri Lankan Civil Society, which brings together a range of individuals and organisations, also condemned the failure of law enforcement agencies to act.
There has been international concern too, especially in light of the regime’s failure to investigate war crimes against Tamil civilians during conflict with brutal Tiger rebels. While visiting Sri Lanka in early February, Nisha Desai Biswal, US assistant secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs, said that “The culture of deterioration of human rights gives us great concern when churches and mosques are burnt down and people feel that they cannot practice their faiths freely and without fear.” At the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the USA will sponsor a resolution on human rights in Sri Lanka.
Minister of External Affairs GL Peiris claimed that this was highly selective and patently unfair, the Nation reported. He told the newspaper that “in many instances the facilities concerned were not mosques or churches but makeshift prayer centers whose operations had irked relevant communities. He pointed out that there are laws regarding the establishment of places of religious worship” and, in addition, referred to the fact that some of the suspected offenders had been charged.
However the authorities are fostering a climate in which antagonism to ethnic and religious minorities is seen as acceptable, including portraying the majority as under threat and so justified in using extreme measures to protect itself. This tactic was used extensively in Sri Lanka in the 1980s, with devastating effects.
“If there is a genocide in this country, by the closest approximation of the word, it must be against the community of majority Sinhalese,” claimed an editorial in state-run newspaper the Daily News in January 2014, under the heading ‘The ongoing genocide against the Sinhalese’. Supposedly “The Sinhalese majority is in the unenviable position of not being able to defend any sustained undermining of its culture, and way of life. There is no freedom of expression for the Sinhalese if it means pointing out that their values are being usurped, or that there are systematic unethical conversions for instance.”
International criticism of the regime led by President Mahinda Rajapakse and his brothers is treated as “persecution” of “the Sinhalese Buddhist community”. And the “gradual destruction of a people” includes “aggressive proselytisation which is carried on through the twin instruments of unethical conversions and the illegal or barely legal establishment of churches etc, on ground that was previously occupied by Buddhist temples, or on property that has simply not been authorized for worship. There is a genocide perpetrated against the majority Sinhalese in Sri Lanka and all right thinking persons in this country should join in the task of fighting this systematic attempt to destroy what is a proud and ancient race.”
Yet the violence unleashed by those who previously used such inflammatory language engulfed large numbers of Sinhalese Buddhist youth, slaughtered by the security forces. In many cases their remains still lie in mass graves, their families never given the chance even to grieve properly. Undermining human rights leaves ordinary people of all communities at risk, in Sri Lanka and worldwide.
© Savitri Hensman, who is originally from Sri Lanka, is a regular Christian commentator on politics, economics, society, welfare, sexuality, theology and religion. She is an Ekklesia associate and works in the equality and care sector