The Turbulence Continues
Christians in Sri Lanka are facing a rough time. They are being discriminated against and do not have recourse to the authorities or the law because no one is listening.
Sri Lanka’s history has always been turbulent. The island nation has seen everything from invasions and colonial rule to rising nationalism and ethnic clashes. The country has also dealt with the conflicting majority Sinhalese ethnic sect and the minority Tamil Tiger rebels. But now the Christians are the new target after the Tamils finally lost in 2009.
The previous government was badly influenced by Buddhist extremism and the Christians were often victims of violent attacks. Over the years the attacks kept increasing and nothing was
done about it. With the change in the government in 2015, people thought that things would be better and the Buddhists would not have such a strong hold on the government. Unfortunately that is not the case and the Christians are still suffering. The Buddhists now have a more strategic approach and they make the Christians suffer in the form of legal restrictions besides increase in persecution by the local government officials.
Even though other minority groups exist in Sri Lanka, it is the 7% Christian population that actually bears the impact of persecution. This is mainly because Christianity is a colonial religion for westerners.
The Christians cannot pray openly, churches and prayer groups have been forcibly closed, their burials have been stopped several times and several violent attacks have taken place. It is not just the violent acts against the Christians but it has become difficult for the Christians to lead peaceful lives in the neighourhood that they want to be in. Christians are not allowed to rent a house in the village. This makes their lives very difficult. They cannot choose where they wish to stay and even if they do get the house by chance, the villagers and the landlord will be pressured to take the house back. If a Christian manages to settle in a house somehow, that is when the actual violence starts such as assault, being chased away from the village, demonstrations and protest marches. Especially in the case of Christians, state interventions have often involved violating constitutional guarantees of the freedom of religion and the right to religious worship and practice. Often, churches have been declared illegal or unauthorized demanding worship services to be stopped. Such acts have been ignored and overlooked by the government and no substantial steps have been taken to resolve the problems of the Christian community.
The problem is that the government of Sri Lanka has tactfully shaped a national identity, keeping the Buddhist philosophy in perspective. It is broadly understood that to be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist. Buddhist monks have been placed in key government positions of power with the result that these Buddhists have even led planned attacks against the Christians as they are considered a part of colonialism.
The main perpetrators are state actors exercising either administrative or police powers. What is shocking is that there is religious discrimination, misuse of the law and failure to maintain the law, refusing the rights of victims and acting beyond the limitations of their authority. Persecutions against the Christians are expected to increase in the future. Militant Buddhists have been working towards anti-conversion laws and to have a ban enforced on missionary groups. There have been many occasions where the Sri Lankan parliament has to pass anti-conversion laws, which Christians fear could be misused to target church activities. The existing ruling party in Sri Lanka has led a campaign called "A Brighter Future for Sri Lanka." The fear is that the Christians would suffer and may not be able to agree with the theme of the campaign.
Such extreme practices in Buddhism do not fit the image of this peaceful religion with its main religious belief revolving around meditation and mental peace; violence associated with the religion is hard to imagine. There are different forms in Buddhism where acts like violence and religious wars would be unthinkable for some practicing Buddhists. There are extremists in the religion who use it to justify their violent acts. In Sri Lanka, monks are given a lot of importance which means the perception of Christianity in the country is very different and it is seen as a colonial religion.
Atrocities against the Christians are possible only because there are loopholes in the law. There are severe gaps where legal action against perpetrators of religious aggression and discrimination needs to be reformed. In many cases, they have been reported and police or government officials have played a role in the violations. In some cases, they have not been able to protect the victims – even though the Constitution of the country states that all minorities have a right to equality, religious freedom and non-discrimination. The laws for the minority groups have to be followed and reinforced so that the majority Buddhists do not take undue advantage.
The government has to take strong measures regarding violations that take place against the religious minorities by altering rules and regulations, making sure that they are treated equally and hold the violators accountable. There has been an increase in threats, protests and hate speeches against the Christians. All communities have to be given equal protection in Sri Lanka so that the country can rid itself of the trauma of the past and move towards a peaceful future. The perception about Christianity being a colonial religion should be changed over time and coexistence should be encouraged by altering the rules and regulations and ensuring that the authorities are not part of the violent acts in the name of religion.
The writer is a member of the staff.
Atrocities against the Christians are possible only because there are loopholes in the law.