Unruly mobs have attacked three churches over the past
fortnight, in one incident setting car tires on fire in front of a Methodist
church to prevent people from entering for Sunday worship.
On Saturday (May 6), a Buddhist monk led a mob to a site where members of
the United Christian Fellowship in Poddala, Galle district, had begun
building a community hall on land they had purchased in the village. The
monk threatened the pastor and a construction worker; one man grabbed the
construction worker by the collar and assaulted him.
The mob said they would set fire to the building if construction continued,
despite the pastor informing them that it was a community hall, not a
Church staff reported the incident to police. Construction is on hold due to
fears of another attack.
Methodist Church Attacked Again
Buddhist monks led a second mob to attack a Methodist church in Piliyandala,
southeast of Colombo, on April 30. The church was previously attacked on
April 23; protest rallies were also held outside the church on April 9 and
16. (See Compass Direct, “Sri Lanka’s Anti-Conversion Bill Revived in
Parliament,” April 26.)
“On April 30, the Buddhist monks and their people did not allow us to have
the service,” a local source told Compass. “They came early in the morning
and gathered around the church, not allowing any of us to go in.”
The mob set car tires on fire on the road outside the church as a scare
tactic to keep people away from the building. When church members phoned the
police, about 30 policemen arrived but said they could do nothing until they
received instructions from their superintendent.
“The superintendent had a quick meeting with us and said if we really wanted
to hold the service, he would order the police to give us protection,” the
source continued. “But if they came against us, the police might have to
take violent action.”
Church members were advised to make an official complaint, noting that the
police had advised them not to hold the service in the interests of
maintaining peace. The police then arrested 10 people in the crowd and
remanded them on a bail fee of 25,000 Sri Lankan rupees (US$243) per person.
The police felt the bail fee might act as a deterrent against further
attacks. All 10 appeared in court on Monday (May 8).
Church leaders have since contacted Buddhist leaders and hope to set up
negotiation meetings with the senior monk in the village.
An Assembly of God church in Piliyandala is also facing
intense opposition. Villagers launched a poster campaign in April,
threatening mass protests if the church does not close down.
On April 9, a small crowd of 24 people gathered outside the church and
chanted Buddhist prayers.
Church leaders alerted police, who arrived at the scene and granted
permission for a short peaceful protest under supervision.
According to the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, this same
church was bombed and completely burned to the ground on September 25, 2003.
When the church was rebuilt, villagers took church members to court in 2004
with the aim of closing it down. The court, however, ruled that Christians
had a legal right to gather for worship.
Violent mobs have carried out at least 160 attacks on churches or Christian
institutions since 2002, when Buddhist monks first launched their campaign
to introduce anti-conversion legislation.
A 19-member committee appointed by the Sri Lankan Parliament is still
reviewing a bill that would outlaw “forcible” conversion. The review
committee was appointed on April 5.
The Buddhist Jathika Hela Urumaya (National Heritage Party) first introduced
its draft Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion to Parliament in July
2004 as an attempt to halt conversions from Buddhism to Christianity. The
bill called for prison sentences of up to five years and/or a stiff fine for
anyone found guilty of converting others “by force or by allurement or by
any fraudulent means.”
It also encouraged members of the public to report cases of suspected forced
Minority groups challenged the constitutionality of the bill, and the
Supreme Court ruled in August 2005 that it was incompatible with Article 10
of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of though, conscience and
religion to every citizen.
An amended draft was tentatively approved in May 2005, but presidential
elections in November 2005 and a breakdown in peace negotiations with the
Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam slowed passage of the legislation.