by Minority Rights Goup, London, December 8, 2016
Though Sri Lanka’s three-decade long armed conflict came to an end in 2009, hopes for a peaceful transition have been marred by ongoing violence against the country’s minorities. Post-war triumphalism and resurgent ethnonationalism, including the formation of Buddhist nationalist groups, has contributed to an increasingly hostile environment for the country’s religious minorities, in particular Muslims and Christians. This has manifested in various forms, including threats and hate speech, attacks on places of worship and mass violence, enabled by a culture of widespread impunity.
The beginning of 2015 saw political change in Sri Lanka with the election of President Maithripala Sirisena in January, followed by the parliamentary election of the United National Front for Good Governance led by the United National Party in August. This was welcomed by many, including religious minorities, as an important step towards greater inclusion in the country. However, despite some signs of progress, the new government has not yet brought an end to violence and discrimination. This report therefore aims to highlight the continued rights abuses affecting religious minorities in Sri Lanka and the particular issues confronting both Christians and Muslims. Drawing on incidents documented by local rapporteurs between November 2015 and September 2016, this report presents an overview of the major trends and specific challenges for Sri Lanka’s Christians and Muslims.
While the reported data indicates a decline in direct physical violence, suggesting that extremist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) and others have less space to operate under the current government, the findings nevertheless demonstrate that significant problems persist. Crucially, there also remain substantial gaps in terms of legal action against perpetrators of religious violence and discrimination. This is despite the fact that the Sri Lankan Constitution guarantees the right to equality, nondiscrimination, and freedom of religion and religious worship, highlighting a persistent culture of impunity when it comes to such acts.
For Christians in Sri Lanka, the report finds that harassment and intimidation – particularly targeted at Christian clergy members – remains commonplace, frequently with the involvement of state actors such as police. Indeed, in the majority of cases the intervention of police was negative, effectively imposing or supporting restrictions on religious freedom such as the closure of a church or halting worship services as illegal activities.
Many of these abuses have been enabled by a 2008 government Circular stipulating that the construction of new places of worship must be approved by the then Ministry of Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment. This Circular, which lacks legal validity, has been repeatedly misapplied to justify the harassment of worshippers, particularly evangelical Christians.
As has been widely documented, Muslims have been subjected to hostility and hate speech in recent years, in large part at the hands of Buddhist nationalist groups such as BBS. Anti-Muslim riots in June 2014 that left four dead, many injured and widespread property damage was the culmination of an extensive anti-Muslim hate speech campaign by BBS – violence that they threaten to repeat.
While the analysis of recent incidents shows that direct physical attacks against Muslims and their places of worship has reduced since 2015, they continue to face a climate of fear and hostility that is actively orchestrated by Buddhist nationalist outfits, including more recent movements such as Sinha Le which was very active during the early months of 2016. The incidents illustrate the daily reality of propaganda targeting the Muslim community as a whole, as well as frequent hate speech, threats, and intimidation.
There have also been reports by activists, politicians, and other violations affecting Hindu places of worship. However, since these have not been systematically quantified, it was not possible to include a full analysis in this report.
Ensuring the full rights and protections of all religious communities in the country is essential if Sri Lanka is to move forward from the traumas of its past towards a more peaceful and sustainable future. This therefore requires a clear commitment from the government, religious leaders, law enforcement and local communities to respect religious diversity and equality before the law.