Why Christian Persecution is Worrisome in Sri Lanka

by World Evangelical Alliance Research & Analysis Report, New York, June 17, 2013

Moreover, the government appears to be desperate to garner popular support – on which the survival of some top officials depends in the post-war scenario – by aggressively pursuing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

If the propaganda against Christians and Muslims carries on unabated and the government continues to provide impunity to Buddhist groups, the space for religious minorities to practise their basic freedoms is likely to shrink much further. The International community needs to act sooner than later.

Four years after its military victory over Tamil Tigers, Sri Lanka appears to be seeking to establish social and political supremacy of the Sinhala Buddhist majority within a unitary state, instead of bringing about reconciliation. And this post-war resurgence of nationalism no longer threatens only the Tamil ethnic minority, but also religious minorities, particularly Christians and Muslims.

While attacks on Muslims have hit the headlines in some foreign media in recent months, the increasing incidence of Christian persecution has received little attention internationally.

The Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force or BBS) and the Sinhala Ravaya (Sinhala Echo) – currently the most active Buddhist Right-wing groups which claim to protect the country’s Sinhalese-Buddhist character – have led numerous attacks on Christians and churches.

This year thus far, at least 30 churches have reported being attacked. Last year, Sri Lanka witnessed 52 incidents of Christian persecution.

It’s not just these “non-state” actors, but authorities are also targeting churches. Many churches have reported that administrative and police officials have ordered them not to operate any longer because they have not been “authorized” by the state.

While registration of religious organizations is not mandatory in Sri Lanka, the government has been contemplating bringing all religious groups under regulation for over a year. Churches last year complained they received a circular stating that all new constructions or continuation of places of worship will need prior approval from the Ministry of Religious Affairs.

Authorities are targeting particularly non-traditional or evangelical churches, apparently due to the suspicion that they might become part of the country’s civil society and pose a threat to the incumbent government in the future.

According to the 2011 census, more than 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population of 20.8 million is Buddhist. Christians are about 7.5 percent, and Muslims a little less than 10 percent. About 80 percent of the Christians are Catholics, and the rest are Protestants. About 40 percent of the Protestants are ethnic Tamils.

Evangelical Christians are being portrayed as enemies of the majority community. For example, the BBS organized a large gathering in Colombo in February, where a prominent leader of the group called on Archbishop of Colombo Cardinal Malcom Ranjith to create a Catholic force of his own against evangelical Christians “who were attempting to perpetuate Christian extremism in the country.”

The hate campaign against Muslims and Christians has been so fierce and frequent that sections of the people are seemingly convinced that hapless religious minorities can actually threaten the interests of the powerful majority community.

Last month, a 30-year-old Buddhist monk set himself alight in the central city of Kandy to protest against the slaughter of cattle and “conversion of Buddhists” by Christians. Later, about 200 Buddhists, supposedly supporters of the BBS, blocked traffic in Colombo, demanding state funeral for the monk. While the mob eventually dispersed without their demand being met, they vowed to keep up pressure on the government to stop the slaughter of animals and ensure there were no “unethical religious conversions.”

The BBS was founded in July 2012 by two Buddhist monks, who were formerly with the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), a political party of monks and part of the ruling alliance. The two monks left the JHU, saying the party was not militant enough to protect Buddhism.

The Sinhala Ravaya was also founded by a group of Buddhist monks in recent months, and is believed to be headed by a former parliamentarian from the JHU. The group has publicly supported top officials of the government.

Leaders and members of the BBS and the Sinhala Ravaya are apparently being backed by authorities, as they have openly spread hatred against the religious minorities and launched attacks on them with almost complete impunity.

Azath Salley, leader of the newly formed Muslim Tamil National Alliance and former deputy mayor of Colombo who is known for criticizing the BBS and the current government, was arrested last month under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for “inciting religious disharmony” by giving an interview to a magazine in neighbouring India.

Salley had spoken against a March 28 attack by BBS monks on a Muslim-owned clothing warehouse, Fashion Bug, near Colombo. A mob of about 500 people had vandalized Fashion Bug, injuring at least six people.

The resurgence of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism can be attributed to the defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, which by some was seen as a victory of Buddhism over Tamil nationalism. Besides, the end of the war led to contemplations over the identity of the state, giving space to promotion of nationalism. This also helps the government to legitimize the brutal military force it used in the war and the tens of thousands of civilian casualties that occurred as a result. This explains why the government is building Buddhist temples and shrines in Hindu-majority areas in the north and the east, where the war took place.

Moreover, the government appears to be desperate to garner popular support – on which the survival of some top officials depends in the post-war scenario – by aggressively pursuing Sinhala Buddhist nationalism.

If the propaganda against Christians and Muslims carries on unabated and the government continues to provide impunity to Buddhist groups, the space for religious minorities to practise their basic freedoms is likely to shrink much further. The International community needs to act sooner than later.
World Evangelical Alliance (WEA) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) sponsors this WEA-RLC Research & Analysis Report to help individuals and groups pray for and act on religious liberty issues around the world. WEA has a consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council.

This report was researched and written by Fernando Perez, and moderated by the WEA-RLC Executive Director, Godfrey Yogarajah. It can be used for distribution or publication with attribution to WEA-RLC.

Amnesty: Torture in Sri Lanka

‘Many times I would lose consciousness’

The Prevention of Terrorism Act – a holdover from the 1980s – is one of the main legal tools deployed by the government to silence its critics. Under it, people can be arrested without charge or trial and held for up to 18 months under a detention order, or pending trial – indefinitely. Locked in a sinister limbo and denied the right to a lawyer, they are left vulnerable to torture – despite a constitutional ban on the practice.

Sometimes the authorities eschew legal avenues altogether, harassing and assaulting their critics through anonymous means. Credible reports of people being bundled into white vans by unidentified assailants and later dumped, or never seen again, are alarmingly frequent.

In Sri Lanka, people seen to be critical of the authorities can be detained for years without access to the outside world.

By Amnesty International, London, June 26, 2013

 

In Sri Lanka, people seen to be critical of the authorities can be detained for years without access to the outside world.

© Finn Andres

 

 

 

I was blindfolded and with my hands tied behind my back. Sometimes our heads were banged against the wall or we would be kicked on our chests. Many times I was half conscious or would lose consciousness. When I would come back I would find people hitting me. They used to say: ‘You must accept that you are part of the Tamil Tigers and you must sign these papers’.

Sri Lankan torture survivor.

Thevan’s story clearly shows how poorly the legal system functions in Sri Lanka. The fact that there was no charge against him, that he was repeatedly tortured, and had no idea if was going to be held in prison for a day or two, five months or 30 years, shows exactly what is wrong with the system.

Polly Truscott, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International.

Thevan (not his real name) has flashbacks of the impossible days he spent being tortured in a police cell in Sri Lanka’s capital, Colombo.

These flashbacks force him to relive a story so harrowing that even he sometimes struggles to believe it happened to him.

“I was blindfolded and with my hands tied behind my back. Sometimes our heads were banged against the wall or we would be kicked on our chests. Many times I was half conscious or would lose consciousness. When I would come back I would find people hitting me. They used to say: ‘You must accept that you are part of the Tamil Tigers and you must sign these papers’”.

In late 2008, Thevan worked in a shop near Vavuniya.

On 29 November that year, he travelled to Colombo with a friend amid the country’s escalating civil war, and both were abducted by men driving a white van.

The men blindfolded them and took them to a detention centre. Three days of torture passed before they realized they were being held in a police station.

“For three days we didn’t know what had happened to us, they just beat us. No questions were asked, only beatings and torture. We were kept in the same place but in different rooms. I could sometimes hear my friend crying as he was being beaten up and he could hear me,” Thevan told Amnesty International.

Pattern of abuse
Thevan’s story is illustrative of the abuses committed by the Sri Lankan security forces against anyone they suspected of being members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) – an armed opposition group that fought for an independent Tamil state on the island.

The 26-year-long war between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE ended in 2009 but the abuses that became entrenched over that period persist.

Journalists, lawyers, grassroots activists – anyone who dares to criticize the authorities – can be picked up under draconian security laws and detained for years without access to the outside world.

The Prevention of Terrorism Act – a holdover from the 1980s – is one of the main legal tools deployed by the government to silence its critics. Under it, people can be arrested without charge or trial and held for up to 18 months under a detention order, or pending trial – indefinitely. Locked in a sinister limbo and denied the right to a lawyer, they are left vulnerable to torture – despite a constitutional ban on the practice.

Sometimes the authorities eschew legal avenues altogether, harassing and assaulting their critics through anonymous means. Credible reports of people being bundled into white vans by unidentified assailants and later dumped, or never seen again, are alarmingly frequent.

For most of them, what followed the arrest was months of detention in unknown centres where security forces would try and force them to confess to being part of the Tamil Tigers.

Thevan was ill-treated in detention until his release in 2011. “They were trying to push me to sign by holding a pen in my hand and putting the paper in front of me, but I refused to do that, and after that the beatings started increasing. Once they hit my head so hard the blood was pouring down my side and there was a crack in my skull. You can still see the scars now,” Thevan explained.

Prison time
On 1 December 2008, after several days of torture and barely able to stand, Thevan was taken to a hospital where doctors treated his injuries.

His arms and legs were handcuffed to a bed.

“They would only take the handcuffs off when I had to go to the toilet and two police officers would come with me, and I had to leave the door open.”

Two weeks after his arrest, Thevan was taken to the Colombo Crime Division – the offices of the investigative branch of local police.

Four months later, he was transferred to one of the main prisons in Sri Lanka.

Thevan still hadn’t been charged with an official crime. He simply did not know why he was being held, or why he continued to be ill-treated.

Every 14 days during his stay in the Welikada maximum security prison in Colombo, Thevan would be chained together with 70 other prisoners and taken in front of a judge.

The hearing would consist of a formal extension of the detention, rubber stamped by a magistrate who is not obliged to ask Thevan or the other prisoners if they wish to speak.

The situation in the prison was particularly difficult for Thevan as guards would tell other prisoners to attack those whom they accused of being supporters of the Tamil Tigers. Prisoners including Thevan were often humiliated, including being publicly stripped and forced to sit in front of others. Some prisoners also alleged other forms sexual abuse.

“Thevan’s story clearly shows how poorly the legal system functions in Sri Lanka,” said Polly Truscott, Deputy Asia-Pacific Director at Amnesty International.

“The fact that there was no charge against him, that he was repeatedly tortured, and had no idea if was going to be held in prison for a day or two, five months or 30 years, shows exactly what is wrong with the system.”

The price of freedom
While Thevan was in prison wondering what would happen to him, his family was saving money to pay for a lawyer and navigate a complicated local system of bribes to get him out of the prison.

They claim these bribes are the reason he was eventually released.

And even though he now feels safe, living outside the country, he lacks confidence that he would ever see justice for the abuses he has suffered.

“The only reason I’m out of prison is because my family paid. I was kept detained to get money from my family. There was never an official charge. No attempt was ever made to investigate the abuses I suffered. We don’t feel we’ll get justice out of the system,” he says.

Amnesty: Forgotten Prisoners

Sri Lanka: Ensure security detainees are charged or released

Several years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka — during which both sides committed gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, torture and the use of child soldiers — hundreds of people are languishing in prison without charge or trial under Sri Lanka’s repressive anti-terrorism laws.

Take Action On This IssueAppeal letter by Amnesty International USA, June 2013

Mano, a 29-year-old Tamil man, was arrested in March 2007 “on suspicion” of being a member of the opposition Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and remains detained. While in custody he has been tortured. Several years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka, hundreds of people are languishing in prison, like Mano, without charge or trial under the country’s repressive anti-terrorism laws. Call on the Sri Lankan government to immediately release these detainees or charge them with recognizable crimes. Under international law, everyone has the right to a fair trial.

Amnesty Forgotten Prisoners Feb 2011

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Appeal letter

I am writing to urge you to immediately release those arrested under the emergency regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, unless they are charged with recognizably criminal offenses and remanded in custody by a civilian court.

Several years after the end of the war in Sri Lanka — during which both sides committed gross human rights abuses, including deliberate and indiscriminate attacks against civilians, torture and the use of child soldiers — hundreds of people are languishing in prison without charge or trial under Sri Lanka’s repressive anti-terrorism laws.

Under international human rights law, all people have the right to challenge the lawfulness of their detention, the right to a fair trial and the right to be free from torture. I call on you to end these human rights violations, hold accountable all those responsible and ensure that the rights of victims are upheld.

I respectfully urge you to immediately release those arrested under the emergency regulations or the Prevention of Terrorism Act, unless they are charged with recognizably criminal offenses and remanded in custody by a civilian court. Any trials must be held promptly and in regularly constituted courts with all internationally recognized safeguards provided. Any arrest or detention must be done in strict compliance with the 2006 Presidential Decree regarding registration of detainees and disclosure of their whereabouts, and in compliance with Sri Lanka’s obligations under international human rights law, in particular the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The Prevention of Terrorism Act should be promptly repealed and the system of administrative detention abolished without delay.

http://takeaction.amnestyusa.org/siteapps/advocacy/ActionItem.aspx?c=6oJCLQPAJiJUG&b=6645049&aid=15438

Sri Lanka Christians Facing More Persecution

by ‘The Baptist Press,’ June 5, 2013

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (BP) — Christians in Sri Lanka, off the southern coast of India, are facing an increase in persecution at the hands of Buddhist fundamentalists who believe the country is a historic Buddhist land that should not be shared with anyone else, a watch group reported.

Christianity is viewed in Sri Lanka as a product of Western colonialism that threatens Buddhists’ identity, the Washington-based International Christian Concern said, adding that the practice of Christian evangelism is seen as an obstruction to Buddhists’ vision for the country.

Open Doors USA, which also closely monitors the persecuted church, corroborated the account in a report June 4, saying Sri Lanka has seen 30 incidents of persecution against Christian churches since January, and “the perpetrators of such acts were not brought to justice.”

A contributor to CNN, in a June 4 opinion piece, wrote that it is time for U.S. pressure on Sri Lanka, which ended a 30-year civil war four years ago but still oppresses people groups.

The United Nations Human Rights Council has cited the continuation of “enforced disappearances, extrajudicial killings, torture, and violations of the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, as well as … discrimination on the basis of religion or belief,” the CNN writer stated.

In late May, a 30-year-old monk set himself on fire to protest the spread of Christianity in Sri Lanka, and his supporters said they would make his dying wish a reality, ICC reported May 29, indicating persecution against Christians there could yet escalate.

About 200 Sri Lankan Buddhists blocked traffic in the capital of Colombo to protest after authorities rejected a state funeral for the country’s first monk to set himself on fire as a form of protest, Agence France-Presse reported May 27.

ICC reported that 2012 and 2013 have seen a dramatic increase in Christian persecution in Sri Lanka, including Christians being attacked in more than 50 incidents in 2012 alone for practicing their faith. Reports of Christian pastors and their families being threatened and having their homes firebombed have almost become common, ICC said.

Catholic World News cited a bishop May 1 in Sri Lanka who said the cause of the uptick in persecution is the growth of what he calls the “Buddhist Taliban.”

Sri Lanka, with 21.5 million people, is 69 percent Buddhist, 8 percent Muslim, 7 percent Hindu and 7 percent Christian, and many of the Christians are Catholic, according to the Catholic World News report cited by ICC.

In March, a large mob attacked a pastor’s home while the family was away and began damaging the property, demanding an end to the church services in the home, ICC said May 5.

The same pastor had been accosted and threatened by a group of Buddhists telling him to close down the church late last year, the human rights organization said. The protesters returned the next day and attacked the building during a worship service, injuring the pastor.

Also in March, more than 10 churches faced persecution in the form of threats, disturbances, harassment or attacks, mostly from Buddhist monks but sometimes with the assistance of the police or a mob, ICC said.

Last summer, a 14-year-old boy, the only Christian in his class at school, reportedly was severely beaten and threatened with death if he did not stop spreading Christianity.

“What is troubling today is the increase in the severity and frequency of the attacks, raising concerns over the motivations behind them and the safety of Christians,” ICC said.

“Although Buddhism is the national religion, the government has expressed its desire to provide religious freedom to all. This is a claim that is severely undermined by the apathy of the police, the courts and the judicial system when it comes to cases filed by Christians against their persecutors.”

Open Doors cited an April press release by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, which expressed deep concern over the “prevalence … of an organized campaign of hatred against adherents of non-majority faiths.”

“There are two alarming factors about the current situation,” the evangelical group wrote. “The first is that the violence seems to be organized and orchestrated by two organizations. Hence the violence has sustainability. Secondly, and most alarmingly, both the extremist violent organizations seemingly have patronage and support from authorities and hence the impunity with which they operate.”

The evangelicals did not identify the two organizations.

ICC believes the motivation for the use of violence by Sri Lankan Buddhists is rooted in politics and ethnic identity.

“Without an urgent initiative to protect its religious minorities, Sri Lanka runs the risk of empowering an unhealthy nationalistic sentiment that will only subvert its earnest efforts to birth a better nation out of the ashes of war,” ICC concluded.
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Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach.