Colombo, January 5 (newsin.asia): A distinguished team of Sri Lankan human rights activists conducted a study of the impact of the April 21, 2019 Easter Sunday bomb attack on Zion church in the Eastern district of Batticaloa by an Islamic zealot.
Done in December 2021 and released on January 4, 2022, the study has come out with important observations. Firstly, the State is continually using the tragedy to harass, not only Muslims, but also Christians. Second, “Hindutva” groups, drawing inspiration from neighboring India, have emerged to marginalize Christians and Muslims in connivance with local Tamil State officials.
As per the 2012 census, Hindus (Tamils) are 64.6%, Muslims 25.5%, Christians 8.8%, Buddhists (1.1%) and others.
The report entitled: Fact Finding Visit to Batticaloa to Study the Impact of the Easter Sunday Bombings is authored by Radhika Coomaraswamy, Nimalka Fernando, Sakuntala Kadirgamar, Chulani Kodikara, Rehab Mahamoob, Yamini Ravindran, Thyagi Ruwanpathirana, Kumudini Samuel, Ambika Satkunanathan, Shreen Saroor and Muqaddasa Wahid.
East Sunday Blasts
On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, a series of bomb blasts took place in several churches in Sri Lanka and in a few luxury hotels in Colombo. Zion Church, in Batticaloa, was one such church where more than 31 people, including 14 children were killed. Government had held several inquiries, including by Presidential Commissions, but those in the highest positions of power have not been held accountable so far. On the contrary, both the Muslim and Christian communities have been subject to harassment. Over 125 Muslims, including 15 women and 2 infants from the Muslim town of Kattankudy have been detained under the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). Since March 2021, an additional draconian element has been added in the form of “de-radicalization” for two years.
The State now requires churches to register despite the absence of a law that requires a place of religious worship to be registered. In October 2008, the Ministry for Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs issued a “circular” on the “Construction of New Places of Worship”, requiring any new place of worship to be registered with the Ministry.
Commenting on this a Pastor said: “When we try to construct a church building, the building approval form is not approved by local authorities and they ask us to go to the Ministry in Colombo and there we are informed that there is nothing for the Ministry to approve! Despite this, the local authorities do not let us construct a church building easily.”
State security agencies visit churches and request information about congregants, supposedly to ensure that those who are not part of the congregation, do not enter the churches (supposedly for security reasons). Perhaps it also helps keep a check on conversions.
Targeting the Christian community now are Hindu groups that propagate “Hindutva-like ideologies and have affiliations to the Right Wing Hindutva groups in India,” the report says. Christian groups expressed dismay that Tamil politicians are supportive of the Hindutva groups. They enable anti-Christian acts or instruct state entities not to take remedial action, the report said. The Hindutva groups, like the majority Sinhala-Buddhist community, are apprehensive about conversion to Christianity.
The report sees a link between Hindutva groups in Sri Lanka, which receive financial support from groups abroad, and similar groups in other parts of South Asia, such as India. “If attacks against Christians take place in India, it was noted that a few days later an attack against a Christian church in Sri Lanka would take place,” the report said.
As for non-denominational Christians, there have been instances when they were prevented from using the public cemetery, which is often called a ‘Hindu cemetery”. They are forced to cremate and conduct last rites according to Hindu customs, Christians alleged. Usually, the local population has no objection to Christians being buried in the public cemetery, but state officials at the local level incite people to protest against it, the Christians alleged.
There were complaints of a trend of not appointing Christians to positions of authority in the administration structures at the provincial level, which is said to be increasingly occupied only by Hindus, many of whom are allegedly aligned to Hindutva groups.
“The Christian community leaders expressed deep concern that the government strategy regarding non-majority ethno-religious groups appears to be similar to that of the Indian government, i.e. state support for action by Hindutva and other right wing groups against non-majority ethno-religious groups, which they stated, will only lead to inter-community conflict and violence. They, therefore, reiterated the need to pay attention to the early warning signs and take proactive action to prevent violence and inter-community conflict,” the report said.
Detentions after the Easter Sunday attacks are bothering Muslims as many of the detentions they say cannot be justified. For instance, many persons were arrested prior to investigation and thereafter discharged as there was no evidence against them.
“This includes persons who, as part of the normal course of their work, booked bus seats for the Easter bombers but had no prior knowledge of the attack. Similarly, the Chairperson of the Centre for Islamic Guidance was arrested for allegedly funding Zahran’s activities. At the time of his arrest, he was portrayed in the media as a key actor in funding Zahran’s activities but was discharged after several months due to the lack of any evidence. By the time these persons were released they had lost their livelihoods and suffered reputational damage and psychological trauma,” the report said. Zahran was the mastermind behind the suicide bombings.
Further, many arrests appear to have been made not for acts deemed offences in law, but for voicing opinions or for having social or business relations with the accused.
Human Rights Watchdog Fails
The Muslims pointed out that in many instances, the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka (HRCSL) had not undertaken regular visits to check on the well-being of the detained persons although the Commission is mandated to visit any place of detention without prior notice.
Further, according to Section 28(1) of the HRCSL Act, any arrest under the PTA has to be told to the Commission within 48 hours and failing to inform the Commission accrues a penalty. “Since a person can be tortured at any point during administration detention which can continue for up to 18 months, regular visits are required to monitor torture and in the event of ill-treatment to immediately refer the person to be examined by the Judicial Medical Officer (JMO) to record the torture. It appears the HRCSL has not discharged its mandate effectively in this regard,” the report pointed out.
The investigating team found that families of those detained in connection with the Easter Sunday bombings had been shunned by other members of the Muslim community and lawyers had refused to appear for them.
“Visits by the security agencies to the families of detained persons, and being summoned to the police station for inquiries, further isolates the families, especially women, from the community, which already views them with suspicion. At the same time, persons who assist families of detained persons are being subject to surveillance and even being interrogated by the security agencies, which prevents others from offering assistance to these families,” the report said.
The De-radicalization Regulations aim to send persons who surrender/surrendered or are/were detained under the PTA, the PTA regulations or Emergency Regulations issued after the Easter attacks, to rehabilitation for two years.
But this regulation violates many rights including due process and the right to a fair trial, the report said. Even after rehabilitation, a person could be subject to surveillance by intelligence agencies and the military for years after release, which have an adverse impact on their ability to socially re-integrate and earn a livelihood.
Muslim community leaders the team met were aware of the plight of the Tamils who had been sent for rehabilitation after Eelam War IV in 2009.