Last Updated: Friday, 29 August 2014, 14:18 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2007 - Sri Lanka

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2007
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2007 - Sri Lanka, 1 May 2007, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/48556994a.html [accessed 30 August 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In recent years, the Commission turned its attention to Sri Lanka because of two primary concerns: an increasing number of attacks targeting members of religious minorities and their worship buildings; and proposed legislation on religious conversion that, if enacted, would have violated international law norms and resulted in abuses of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief. In February 2006, the Commission visited Sri Lanka to seek information about reports of growing religious intolerance. The delegation met with Sri Lankan government officials, Members of Parliament, representatives of political parties, human rights organizations and other non-governmental groups, and representatives of the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim communities. Attacks on religious minorities, particularly Christians and Ahmadis, continue in Sri Lanka. Since April 2006, the proposed legislation on religious conversions has been before a parliamentary standing committee. The Commission will continue to monitor the situation in Sri Lanka and report on any further attempts to restrict freedom of religion in that country.

Unlike many of the other countries that draw Commission attention, Sri Lanka is, despite years of civil war, a functioning democracy. The primary new development in the past year was the return in April 2006 of serious fighting between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE or Tamil Tigers), who are seeking an independent state in the north of the country, and Sri Lankan government security forces. A ceasefire of several years' standing broke down and peace talks were suspended, resulting in the renewal of the brutal civil conflict that has plagued Sri Lanka for over 20 years. Since then, there have been reports of a renewal of the kind of human rights violations, perpetrated by the forces of both sides of the conflict, that were common throughout the 1980s and 1990s. In the context of the civil war, violence against civilians based on ethnicity and/or religion has occurred throughout the country. Reports indicate that both sides in the conflict fail to take steps to prevent or stop incidents of communal violence between or among Buddhist Sinhalese, Hindu Tamils, Muslims, and Christians in Sri Lanka. In April 2006, in the ethnically and religiously mixed town of Trincomalee, mobs of Sinhalese, reportedly well organized, responded to an alleged LTTE bombing by attacking and destroying dozens of Tamil businesses and homes and killing several people. Police and other law enforcement personnel reportedly stood by for more than two hours before making efforts to halt the violence.

Not directly connected to the civil conflict, there have been continuing instances of violent attacks on churches, ministers, and other Christian individuals in the past few years, reportedly carried out by members of, or persons affiliated with, extremist groups espousing Buddhist nationalism. There are reports that in the rural areas churches and individual Christians, who comprise approximately 7 percent of the population, have been physically assaulted by one or more persons or by large groups, particularly for alleged attempts to convert Buddhists to Christianity. Churches are sometimes desecrated and/or burned to the ground. Reports indicate that over the past five years, approximately 200 attacks have been carried out against churches and/or individuals; during the same period, 200 other persons reportedly have received verbal threats. The violence has mainly affected Evangelical churches, but other Protestant and Roman Catholic institutions have also been targeted. Although few deaths have resulted, dozens of Christian individuals have been injured enough to require hospitalization.

Though diminished in number since the peak of violence in 2003, the attacks have continued. The police sometimes respond quickly to the attacks and on occasion provide extra security for churches. Other sources suggest that these actions are pro forma and not effective. In August 2006, a mob of 200 persons led by three Buddhist monks attacked a children's home run by the Dutch Reformed Church in central Sri Lanka. They forced their way in, destroyed much of the property, and threatened staff with death if they did not leave the premises. In October 2006, a mob of 50 people led by four Buddhist monks arrived at a church service in Gampaha and demanded that the service cease. Because he feared that his congregation would be attacked, the pastor agreed to cancel the service. The pastor filed a complaint with the police and the church met without incident the following November. In November, a church in Gampola, Gandy district, came under attack, damaging windows and other parts of the church. In February 2007, a church near Colombo that had been attacked and had property destroyed in December was attacked again, when a group of people began throwing stones at the church. A police complaint was reportedly made.

In addition, in the past year there have been an increasing number of reported attacks on the country's small Ahmadi community, a group that considers itself to be Muslim but which is deemed unorthodox by some Muslims. This violence, which consists of attacks on Ahmadi individuals and property, is reportedly carried out by groups of Muslims who object to the Ahmadis' religious views. Some reports indicate that the antagonism against Ahmadis in Sri Lanka is being provoked in part by persons who are connected to the current government, including an advisor to the president.

The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, who traveled to Sri Lanka in May 2005, concluded in her report that, with regard to acts of religious violence or intolerance by non-state actors, the Sri Lankan government's obligation to promptly investigate and prosecute all perpetrators has not "been satisfactorily fulfilled." This problem was compounded by the fact that due to wider, more chronic deficiencies in the judicial system in Sri Lanka, including corruption, a lack of police training, and inadequate infrastructure, arresting perpetrators and moving them through the criminal court system was a serious problem, regardless of the crime involved.

In 2004, two draft laws purporting to restrict religious conversion as well as the act of attempting to convert another person were circulated in Sri Lanka. The first was a private member's bill drafted by the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) party comprised of nationalist-minded Buddhist monks, targeting "forced" conversions; the second was a bill proposed by the government, a much stricter bill that essentially prohibited any and all attempts to convert another person – even inadvertently. In July 2004, the government's bill was sent to committee for re-drafting. The JHU bill was tabled that same month and sent for analysis on its constitutionality to the Supreme Court, where over 20 challenging petitions had been filed. In August 2004, Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ruled that certain clauses of the JHU bill violated several articles of the constitution. As a result of the Supreme Court's ruling, in order for it now to become law, the bill in its entire form would require a two-thirds majority in the parliament and the approval of the people of Sri Lanka in a referendum.

In March 2005, the JHU again introduced legislation on conversions. Called "Bill on the Prohibition of Forcible Conversions," the legislation was the same as that tabled the previous year, including the provisions of that bill that had been found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. This bill against religious conversions would have: (1) provided for prison terms of up to five years for anyone who attempted to convert a person from one religion to another by "the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means," with the terms "fraud" and "allurement" vaguely defined such that many charitable activities could be included; (2) established reporting requirements for any person who adopts a new religion as well as for any person who takes part "directly or indirectly" in the conversion of another person, requiring individuals to inform government authorities of their action or face the threat of jail time and fines; and (3) provided an opportunity for "any interested person" having "reason to believe" a violation of the act to bring cases in the public interest. According to the UN Special Rapporteur, the proposed law was not "an appropriate response to the religious tensions and is not compatible with international human rights law."

The JHU bill was sent to a parliamentary standing committee for discussion. After elections in November 2005, newly-elected President Mohinda Rajapaksa prorogued parliament, thereby annulling all bills going through any stage of the process of being enacted by parliament, including the JHU's bill on religious conversion. It later came up once more before parliament and was referred again to a parliamentary standing committee, where it has reportedly been since April 2006.

In the past few years, there have been reports, particularly in the period immediately after the December 2004 "tsunami" disaster, of some groups and individuals engaging in efforts to encourage people to convert – reportedly amounting to "unethical" practices – that are said to have led to increased tensions among religious communities in Sri Lanka. Some in Sri Lanka suggest that the anti-conversion legislation came about in response to these reports. These claims have included, for example, the offering of money, employment, access to education or health care, or some other material good as an incentive to convert or join a particular church, taking advantage chiefly of the poorest people among Sri Lanka's population. Though there have been allegations, concrete evidence of any such practices has not been found. The December 2005 report of the UN Special Rapporteur stated that despite repeated requests, she "did not meet any person who had changed his or her religion because of allurement or other form of inducement." She also reported that she did not come across any substantiated cases of religious conversion that would constitute a violation of the right to freedom of religion or belief. The Commission on its visit also requested to meet with persons who had been subject to "unethical" practices regarding conversion but was not provided with any such cases. However, some involved in evangelizing activities have also been accused of denigrating Sri Lanka's other religious communities by referring to those religions as evil, pagan, or unworthy of consideration, and thereby sowing contention and even violence among religious groups.

Religious communities in Sri Lanka must register either as a corporation, which enables them to be treated as a corporate entity in financial and real estate transactions, or as a charitable organization, which entitles them to some tax exemptions. In 2003, the Sri Lankan Supreme Court denied the incorporation petition of a Roman Catholic group, the Teaching Sisters of the Holy Cross of the Third Order of Saint Francis, claiming that incorporation is impermissible if the group is engaged in proselytization and/or providing material benefit. The group took its petition to the UN Human Rights Committee (HRC), a treaty body, which in November 2005 decided in the group's favor. The HRC found that articles 18 and 26 (non-discrimination) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights had been violated. It stated that the grounds advanced by the Supreme Court and the government of Sri Lanka in support of the restrictions were insufficient to demonstrate that these restrictions were necessary to further one or more of the limitations on rights permitted by the Covenant.

In addition to the February 2006 visit to Sri Lanka, the Commission issued a statement in July 2005 expressing concern about growing religious intolerance in Sri Lanka, particularly the ongoing violence against religious minorities and the proposed bill addressing forced religious conversions. In September 2005, the Commission issued a statement about the proposed amendment to the constitution, expressing concern about articles in the amendment discussed above that would have violated the internationally guaranteed rights primarily of members of the majority Buddhist community as well as minority religious groups. Throughout the past year, Commission staff continued to meet with religious leaders, academics, human rights activists and others from Sri Lanka, and with members of congressional and international delegations and others that visited the country.

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