Buddhists visiting a temple in Sri Lanka. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Buddhists visiting a temple in Sri Lanka. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Christians in Sri Lanka have experienced a sharp increase in attacks this year, with 67 reported cases between January and September, according to the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).

September saw the highest number of cases, with 12 documented attacks. Comparatively, in the first five months of last year, the NCEASL recorded 20 cases.

“We are witnessing that communities are being mobilised in an increasing manner against Christians,” a lawyer working with the NCEASL who wished to remain unnamed told Morning Star News.

“The incidents are not anymore only led by extremist groups, but we are seeing that the extremist elements are able to influence communities as a whole and lead violent mob attacks against places of worship and people,” the lawyer said, before also noting an increase in the influence of nationalist Hindu groups in India: “In the Eastern Province, we see a lot of influence from the India’s Hindu right-wing groups such as the RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] seeping into Sri Lanka … Hindu extremist groups have had meetings with Hindu villagers promoting hatred and division and inciting them towards violence.”

In a statement before the UN Human Rights Council earlier this month the World Evangelical Alliance, of which the NCEASL is a member, called on the government of Sri Lanka “to repeal legislation and jurisprudence that violate religious freedom”.

In August the Sri Lankan Supreme Court confirmed that the right “to propagate” one’s religion is not protected by the Constitution, which gives Buddhism the “foremost place” among all other religions and places it under state protection.

While 70% of the Sri Lankan people regard themselves as Buddhist, Hinduism is the second largest religious group (12.6%), while Christians make up approximately 9.2% of the population.

‘To be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist’

Most incidents against Christians this year involved violence (16 cases) or threats (16 cases), according to the NCEASL.

There were also nine cases each of “discrimination”, “demands of closure” (of places of worship) and “intimidation”; two cases each of “police inaction, “false allegations” and “registration” (of cases against Christians); and one each of “legal challenge” and “demonstration”.

In July World Watch Monitor published the story of a 52-year-old Sri Lankan brickmaker, Nimal Sarat, who received death threats after his conversion to Christianity.

In April civil-society groups asked Facebook to do more to prevent hate speech, including comments that discriminate on religious lines, following anti-Muslim riots.

In Sri Lanka, race and religion are intertwined and the background to the simmering tensions and outbursts of violence is the commonly-held belief that “to be Sri Lankan is to be Buddhist”.

The country is 44th on the 2018 Open Doors World Watch List of the 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian.