“Buddhism is peaceful by nature, but it is necessary to resort to violence… to avoid having the peaceful religion ‘wiped out’.” Ashin Wirathu, leader of the 969 extremist Buddhist movement in Myanmar.
Many people would find it surprising that a country where Buddhism is the state religion – considered to be a peaceful religion – is not a place of peace for Muslims and Christians.
Although church attacks and closures in Sri Lanka have declined under the new presidency, reports of intimidation have been climbing for the past three years. Physical attacks remain constant at about one per month.
What happened at Lalith* and Dinesh’s* churches is typical of the different levels of attack. Lalith’s church in Wattala, western Sri Lanka, was approached by a mob of locals, including Buddhist monks, who threatened to burn down the church – with him, his wife and three children inside. The monks decided they didn’t want his church next to a Buddhist temple even though it had been there for six years already. They registered a complaint against Lalith, but he was acquitted by a judge who used new legislation on religious freedoms to discharge both him and his church. “Extremists want me gone, but the same persecution will wait for me wherever I go because I will preach the same gospel,” Lalith said.
Dinesh has led a church in Kandy district, central Sri Lanka, for 30 years. When he started building an extension to his church in December 2015 he was told by the village committee, police and religious officials to stop, and that he was no longer welcome. The community filed a case against him, and, in court, the judge ruled against him for having an unauthorized place of worship; he was ordered to close down the church. He appealed his case and won but then local Buddhist villagers singled out business owners at the church and stopped buying their goods and services.
Mahesh de Mel, Missions Director of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka, believes there is more to anti-Christian feeling among Sri Lankan Buddhists than acts of violence. “I think we have to redefine what we really mean by persecution. When you are talking about persecution in Sri Lanka, the agenda is not to assault people…it’s a matter of protecting the village from people who bring Christ.
“When you go to a village [to evangelise, or to live], your persecutors will say: ‘Don’t come into this village! This is a Buddhist village. You’re not supposed to come and talk about your religion in this place.’ If the person insists on going in, the [villagers] may use some means of violence.”
The second level, he says, happens when a minority Christian decides to settle down. “They won’t allow them to rent a house in the village,” he explains. “If there’s no house, there can’t be arson.”
“The third level is even if you get the house, they will pressure the villagers and the landlord to get the house back. So if you somehow manage to settle, only then will you be a target – assault, arson, being chased away from the village, the demonstrations and the protests. All these things happen only after you are already settled.”
De Mel says when a Sri Lankan wants to share their Christian faith and someone says they can’t, that is when persecution starts.
*Names changed for security reasons
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- A radical political group, ‘Lion’s Blood’, has risen to prominence – pray for protection for Christians and that acceptance for minorities will prevail.
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