Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Christians in Sri Lanka made up 7.6 per cent of the population (6.2 per cent Roman Catholic and 1.4 per cent other denominations, primarily Protestant / Evangelical) (2012 Census). The Christian community, comprising Roman Catholics, traditional Protestant Christians and non-traditional or evangelical Christians, encompasses both Sinhalese and Tamil ethnic groups.
It is generally accepted that Roman Catholicism and Protestant Christianity were introduced by the Portuguese, Dutch and British, who invaded the island between 1505 and 1780. However, archaeological evidence indicates the presence of a Persian Christian community as far back as 500 AD.
The historical perception of Christianity as a tool of Western colonialism, perpetuated by ardent Buddhist nationalists in the years following independence, has led to Christians – particularly evangelical denominations – being viewed by many as a suspicious ‘other’ and a threat to Buddhism and Sinhala culture. Propaganda-driven attacks on religious minorities gained momentum in the 1980s, targeting Protestant Christians.
These incidents intensified with the emergence of Buddhist nationalist movements such as the SUCCESS (Society for Upliftment and Conservation of Cultural, Educational and Social Standards) movement, formed by prominent Buddhist clergy and laity in the 1990s, and the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) in December 2003. Buddhist nationalists used accusations of proselytization to stoke animosity towards evangelical Christians. The JHU subsequently positioned itself as a political party, championing the establishment of a Buddhist nation and the introduction of laws prohibiting religious conversion, inciting further intolerance against the country’s Christian community. That year also marked a significant increase in violent attacks against Christians, with 2004 recording the highest number of attacks to date. During the past 20 years, there have been over 900 documented incidents against Christians, including targeted killings of Christian clergy, physical violence and extensive destruction of places of worship and property.
Hostility towards Christians, particularly evangelical Christians, has persisted for decades. The various manifestations of this hostility, however, have evolved over time: while there is a notable decrease in violent attacks causing physical injury or property, other instances not involving physical violence – such as harassment, threats, intimidation and discrimination – persist.
While Sri Lankan law does not require state authorization or registration of places of worship or religious bodies, the 2008 Circular consists of an instruction issued by the Secretary of the Ministry to provincial councils and divisional secretaries that the construction of new places of worship requires prior approval of the ministry. This is widely used to support the restriction or prohibition of Christian places of worship as illegal or unauthorized. Although the 2008 Circular clearly stipulates that it is applicable to new building construction and does not have retrospective effect, it is routinely misapplied by state actors to close down churches and forbid Christian worship, even in structures pre-dating the issuing of the circular.
The circular stipulates submission of documentary evidence by applicant religious bodies to prove their bona fides. However, it exempts ‘traditional religions’ from this requirement. What constitutes a ‘traditional religion’ is not explained in the document or elsewhere, allowing the various officials of relevant bodies to apply their own interpretation. The implication of a special category of ‘traditional religions’ inevitably cements the perception that religions which are viewed as ‘non-traditional’ consequently lack legitimacy. This encourages discrimination against evangelical Christians in particular, extending even to evangelical denominations incorporated by Act of Parliament as far back as 1947, who are nevertheless not accepted as ‘traditional’.
Updated March 2018.