Colombo, August 17 (BDNews24.com): The US State Department’s report on religious freedom in Sri Lanka suring 2016 has pointed out blemishes in the Sri Lankan government’s approach to its constitutional commitment to ensure religious freedom to all communities while according to Buddhism the “foremost place” and protecting it.
A 2003 Supreme Court ruling had determined that the State is constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism – other religions were not accorded the same fundamental right of state-provided protection, the report released on Tuesday noted.
“Non-Buddhist religious groups reported an increase in discriminatory restrictions imposed by local government officials on religious minorities. This included a requirement that evangelical Christian churches register places of worship although no law or regulation specifically requires such registration.”
“The government continued to permit the construction of Buddhist statues in non-Buddhist areas despite strong objections from members of the Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities. And it had not yet prosecuted Buddhist monks involved in attacks against Muslims and Christians in 2014,” the report pointed out.
Listing the main events, the report said that the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 85 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year compared to 87 such incidents in 2015.
The UK-based Minority Rights Group International (MRG), reported 60 instances of hate speech, acts of discrimination, or attempts to desecrate or destroy Muslim religious buildings in the first half of the year.
Buddhist groups – including the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Ravana Balava, Sinhala Ravana, and the Sinhale Jathika Balamuluwa, which claims ownership of the Sinha-Le (Sinhala Blood) campaign, continued to promote the supremacy of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist population and propagated views hostile to members of religious and ethnic minorities.
Sri Lanka’s parliament had limited the minority groups’ ability to proselytize based on a 2003 Supreme Court ruling stating the right to propagate a religion through proselytization is not a fundamental right under the constitution.
On September 23, 2016 the Court of Appeal reinforced a 2003 Supreme Court ruling that determined the state was constitutionally required to protect only Buddhism by dismissing an appeal by the Jehovah’s Witnesses seeking police assistance in conducting investigations and criminal prosecutions in cases of criminal attacks and harassment targeting them.
The court also decided the constitution did not guarantee the right to propagate religion, thus the police could not be compelled to investigate these incidents.
The law allows incorporation of minority religious organizations. But church leaders said that in land and property matters they faced opposition from local authorities and that the Ministry of Christian Religious Affairs had been of limited help only.
Evangelical Christian churches continued to report pressure and harassment by local government officials to suspend worship activities that the government classified as “unauthorized gatherings” or to close down places of worship because they were not registered with the government.
Buddhist Temples in Hindu Areas
Civil society groups and politicians in the predominantly Tamil-Muslim Northern and Eastern provinces stated that the construction of Buddhist shrines by Buddhist groups or the military became contentious symbols of a “perceived Buddhist Sinhalese religious and cultural imperialism,” the report said.
To politicians in the North, the Lankan military sometimes acted outside its official capacity to aid in the construction of these statues.
On September 12, President Sirisena had announced that 2017 would be dedicated to propagating a Buddhism in Sri Lanka. In October, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe stated the leaders of all faiths and political parties in the country supported keeping the special protection accorded to Buddhism in the constitution.
Arrested and Bailed
The authorities arrested the leaders of militant Buddhist and Muslim organizations in November for hate speech and threats of violence. On November 15, police arrested Dan Priyasad, the leader of the Savior of Sinhalese organization, for publicly inciting hate speech against Muslims.
On November 16, police arrested Secretary of the Muslim organization Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamath (SLTJ) Abdul Razik for “inciting religious disharmony” by speaking against other religions in an offensive manner during a protest on November 3. But the courts released Razik on bail on December 9.
But cases against monks accused in the 2014 attacks on Muslims and Christians progressed slowly. Muslim lawyers stated that 42 cases related to anti-Muslim riots in Aluthgama in 2014 remained pending at the end of the year.
(The featured image at the top is that of Ven.Gnanasara Thera, Gen.Secretary of Bodu Bala Sena in a belligerent mood)