The tension was palpable. It was almost exactly a year to the day since the Assemblies of God church in Kesbewa, on the edge of the capital, Colombo, had been burned down. I walked carefully through the rubble and into the blackened shell—all that remained of the building. My guide stayed at the wheel of the car, the engine running, so we could make a quick getaway if necessary. Within minutes Buddhist villagers were standing in the doorways watching me. A small crowd began to form, and I knew enough to beat a hasty retreat. What would have happened if we’d stayed? “They would have called the local monk from the temple,” the guide said. “And who knows what may have happened then.”
Christians around the world face persecution from all sides—authoritarian governments, Communists, fundamentalist Muslims, and extremist Hindus. The latest phenomenon, however, has caught many in the West by surprise: the rise of militant Buddhism. While we tend to associate Buddhism with meditation and peace, in Sri Lanka it’s a very different story.
Within the last two years, extremist Buddhists have attacked at least 160 churches in Sri Lanka. An estimated 140 churches have closed as a result of violence and intimidation, and in some places Christians are forced to worship in secret—in the middle of the night—for fear of being discovered and attacked. In January last year, at least four Catholic churches were attacked. In one, the tabernacle was smashed open and the hosts scattered on the floor. In another, the pews were burned.
Many of the incidents of anti-Christian violence have been incited by monks, and in some places the monks have themselves beaten up pastors. Nagarajah Solomon leads a church outside Kandy, in the center of the country. Last year a Buddhist monk led a mob of 15 people to capture two church workers and take them to the temple. The Christians were locked up for several hours in the temple, where six monks beat them with fists and sticks. Then the monks summoned more than 200 villagers to announce that these Christians were destroying the community and their culture.
When Pastor Solomon arrived at the temple to plead for the release of his church workers, he too was locked up and interrogated by the monks, with the angry mob waiting outside. “They asked me to instruct my congregation to come to the temple, renounce their Christian faith and return to Buddhism,” Pastor Solomon told me. “But I told them I could not do that. Their faith was a matter for them. At that, the monks continued to beat me.” Finally, the monks brought the pastor out to the assembled crowd, and told the people: “These are fundamentalists. You should not tolerate them. You should immediately attack them.”
Miraculously, the police arrived and dispersed the crowd. But instead of the police arresting the Buddhists who had led the assault, Pastor Solomon and his church workers were themselves arrested. The monks followed them to the police station. Then came a moment typical of the graciousness of the persecuted church. Pastor Solomon, with his gentle smile, turned to one of the monks and said: “I have forgiven you, and forgotten it all. I hold nothing against you, and have no anger towards you.” The Christians spent the night in the police station and were released the next day.
Adding Insult to Injury
Some of the attacks are not only violent and destructive but deliberately crude and insulting as well. In one village in southern Sri Lanka, a church was burned down, and when the congregation moved to another building, local Buddhists, incited by a monk, threw buckets of human excrement at the house and then doused it with engine oil. In another village, a mob of 30 drunken Buddhists attacked a church, assaulted the church workers, attempted to rape three Christian women, and then dragged them off through the streets, claiming they had captured some prostitutes working in a brothel. In the first week of November, a pastor’s family was attacked; his wife beaten; and his furniture, documents, and books burned. The attackers then took a sword and cut off the long hair of the pastor’s wife—a deliberate act of humiliation.
No one has been charged for these attacks, and Buddhist groups have been slow to condemn the violence. Indeed, some have even claimed the reports are invented or exaggerated. “Attacks have been orchestrated and filmed by Christians, to create the opinion that we are intolerant,” the director of the Buddhist Dharma Vijaya Foundation, Olcot Gunasakera, told me. But I had visited Kesbewa and seen the burned-out church myself, I told one group of Buddhists. “There is a suspicion that the church in Kesbewa was burned by church members themselves,” they replied. They did not, however, provide any evidence for this claim.
Not satisfied with violence alone, the Buddhists are now trying to crack down on Christians through legislation. One group of monks formed a political party, known as the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), and won nine seats in Parliament in the general election early last year—the first time ever that Buddhist monks have entered politics. The JHU has drafted an anti-conversion law, honoring their main election campaign pledge. While the Supreme Court ruled that some parts of the draft law were unconstitutional, the JHU is intent on rewriting the bill and introducing it within the next six months. “The way it is now, it looks as though it will be passed, unless God intervenes,” Godfrey Yogarajah, general secretary of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), said. “But God has intervened before. There were several times when they were on the verge of passing the law, and something happened, like the government fell. But we need the international community to bring pressure on the Sri Lankan government to stop all this.”
Even if the JHU’s draft is watered down in line with the Supreme Court ruling, any anti-conversion law will be devastating to interfaith relations. The terminology used in reference to conversion—”force,” “allurement,” “fraudulent means”—is inflammatory and too vaguely defined. Under the current definitions proposed, which were accepted by the Supreme Court, preaching the Christian doctrine of judgment, for example, is regarded as invoking “divine displeasure,” which falls under the broad category of “force.” And almost all social action by the Church will be regarded as allurement and prohibited.
Another threat comes in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment that has been drafted, making Sri Lanka a Buddhist state and prohibiting Buddhists from converting to another religion. Buddhism is currently given the foremost place in the constitution, and Buddhists number 70 percent of the 20 million-strong population in Sri Lanka. But the constitution as it currently stands protects freedom to convert.
A Growing Threat
There are several factors behind the persecution, but they all relate to a growing Buddhist nationalist sentiment—a folk belief that when the historical Buddha was on his deathbed, he asked for the island of Sri Lanka to be set aside to protect Buddhism. There is also what some observers describe as a “siege mentality” among the majority Sinhalese ethnic group. Although they are 74 percent of the population, the Sinhalese have always felt insecure. This has resulted in decades-long ethnic tensions with the Tamils, and now the escalating religious conflict. Christianity is the only faith that crosses ethnic lines. According to Yogarajah, all Hindus are Tamil, all Buddhists are Sinhalese, and only Christians are found among both communities.
Sadly, colonialism has also contributed to the extremist sentiment. For almost 450 years, the island was ruled by three European colonial powers consecutively, starting with the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and then the British. With the Portuguese came Catholicism, which was brutally imposed on the locals. Then the Dutch and the British brought their forms of Protestant Christianity. “We cannot erase this from our history,” the president of the Methodist Conference, Rev. Noel Fernando, told me. “It is in people’s minds. It is the ugly background through which Buddhists look at Christians.”
But the most significant factor in the recent explosion of persecution is the growth of Christianity among the people. While the population census shows no increase, in some areas the faith has grown phenomenally—particularly among Evangelicals and Pentecostals. And while Catholic, Anglican, and Methodist churches have come under fire, the vast majority of the violence has focused on Evangelicals.
There is much talk of “unethical” and “forced” conversion in Sri Lanka today. The Buddhists accuse Christians of luring converts through the offer of money or other incentives and claim that some have been forcibly converted through threats to withdraw financial or social provisions. But while these claims are made regularly, no evidence has been forthcoming. Yogarajah says he has asked for cases to be brought to his attention. “I met a representative of the JHU, and I proposed that whenever allegations are made, we form a joint investigation team, with Christians and Buddhists, to look into the cases,” he explains. “They agreed, but no cases have been brought to us to investigate.”
While Yogarajah admits that Christians have made mistakes in the past and that some Evangelicals may have behaved in ways insensitive to the culture, he maintains that the charges of unethical conversions are wildly exaggerated. “The Buddhists claim that churches are giving people money to convert. But if a person is given money, what is to stop them [from] reverting back to their own religion once they have taken the money? Only the provision of unlimited money would do that, and the churches in Sri Lanka are poor, they do not have much money.” And as Bishop Marius Peiris, secretary general of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka, pointed out: “A forced conversion is a contradiction in terms. A true conversion can only be a conversion of the heart.”
But that has not convinced the Buddhists who apply the phrase “unethical” to Christian social programs and accuse the faithful of ulterior motives, says the general secretary of the National Christian Council, Rev. Ebenezer Joseph. They fail to see that helping the poor—by providing hospitals and schools—is a natural part of the Christian mission in itself, without any conditions attached.
Dr. Anula Wijesundera, who sat on the Presidential Commission on Buddha Sasana in 2002, which investigated the activities of Christian groups, confirms the suspicion. “Christian Non-Governmental Organizations [NGOs] go to [a] remote village, buy or rent a small house, start preschools where they indoctrinate little children, and they visit the sick and pray for them. When the sick get better, the Christians claim it was due to their prayers,” she remarks. “My message is, if you want to help, don’t come with ulterior motives.” Tilak Karumaratne, founder of the Sihala Llrumaya party which became the JHLI, agrees. “They are using poverty as a weapon. Poverty and unemployment should not be used as tools to convert.”
But the Christians say there is a profound misunderstanding at work here. “Social concern and action is an end in itself,” urges Yogarajah. “It is part of the mission of the Church, demonstrating God’s love, and should never be used as a means to an end.”
While Evangelicals are the prime targets for criticism, Catholics are not exempt from the charges. The president of the Hindu Council, Sivanandini Duraiswamy, accuses the Catholic Church of misusing the 20-year-long war between the government and the Tamil Tigers in order to gain converts. “The Tamil Tigers are indebted to the Catholic Church,” she claims. “I have heard that one Tamil Tiger commander goes to a Catholic priest for a blessing before he launches an attack. In the north and east of the island, Hindus are not permitted access to the refugee camps for the displaced people—only Catholics are allowed in to help the refugees. Then many convert to Catholicism as a result.”
There may be reasonable concern about overzealous evangelism in a Buddhist country—one Buddhist told me that Evangelicals “have prayer meetings which are vociferous, with loud music that does not fit in with the culture of the community.” Nevertheless, the hysterical response by Buddhists, and some Hindus, is well out of proportion. It has reached a level now where the extremists see a Christian conspiracy around every corner. During the conflict with the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, many Buddhist and Hindu temples have been damaged or destroyed. “The popular belief is that the fundamentalist Christians are behind this,” said Duraiswamy. The Tamil Tigers’ bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy—Buddhism’s most sacred site in Sri Lanka—was viewed by some as the work of Christians. Rumors abound of Christians eating cookies in the shape of Buddha, and producing swimming costumes with Buddha images, as an insult to the religion. Most bizarre of all is the belief that the Taliban’s destruction of the historic Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan was actually the work of Christians.
Wild conspiracy theories can be amusing, but they can also be deadly. When the Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero, a prominent Buddhist monk and a champion of Buddhist nationalism, died in December 2003 in Russia, the militants and the media promoted the rumor that he had been killed by Christians. Although an autopsy showed he died of a heart attack, the theory was perpetuated and sparked further violence. On Christmas Eve of 2003—the day of the monk’s funeral—20 churches were attacked. Many Christians had to celebrate Christmas with police protection, and a Christian-run orphanage was burned to the ground in Madampe—the children’s books, clothes, and toys turned to ash.
Most Christian groups have noted the concerns over cultural sensitivity and responded accordingly. One pastor said that the songs Christians sing in their services are all translations of Western Christian modern hymns, usually accompanied with a guitar and keyboard. “This creates the perception that Christianity is a foreign religion, not rooted in local soil. The church is more Westernized than the rest of society, and we need to change that.” The NCEASL has developed a code of conduct, recommending that Evangelical churches keep noise levels down, never use social action as bait to convert, and present the gospel in a positive manner, without deliberately condemning other religions. “We felt we needed to examine ourselves and see if there are things we can do to prevent hostility,” says Yogarajah. “We don’t want to be a curse to the nation, we want to be a blessing to the nation.” Reverend Fernando argues that while “we Christians do have a mandate to share the Gospel, God has also given us a head to think about whether we will offend people when we present the Gospel. Understanding cross-cultural ministry is very important. We need to build a bridge of friendship with others.”
But bridges need to be built not only with other religions and cultures in Sri Lanka but among Christians as well. If the entire Christian population stood together, Yogarajah believes it would be a formidable group. “The Buddhists have a strategy to divide the Church, to target Evangelicals, and stop the traditional churches from speaking out,” he says. To some extent this has been successful with Catholics, whose bishops are divided over how strongly to oppose the Buddhists. According to one bishop, the Catholic Church has itself lost more than 80,000 members to the newer, Evangelical churches. Chilaw’s Bishop Frank Fernando says he wouldn’t go as far as describing the Evangelicals’ methods as unethical, but he does believe a problem exists. Nevertheless, he says, “Anti-conversion legislation is totally unacceptable. The Constitution says very clearly that we have a right to change, and practice, the religion of our choice. It is part of our religion to proclaim it. Conversion should not be criminalized. If a person wants to change religion, he should have the complete freedom to do so.”
The Road Ahead
For now, the horrific tsunami that hit southeast Asia and wreaked havoc on Sri Lanka will likely delay the movement of the anti-conversion law. But it’s only a matter of time before it is brought forward again.
Unfortunately, the prospects for resolving these issues through dialogue and reconciliation are doubtful. “Dialogue has been going on, and on our side we are ready for reconciliation,” explains Yogarajah. “But [non-Christians] have been accusing us of things that are not true, and they want to introduce legislation that will suppress the rights of the Christian minority in Sri Lanka.”
Indeed, the Buddhists are exhibiting little of their trademark philosophy of peace, having opted instead for violence and media slander. World Vision, the international relief organization, has been a particular target. The Buddhist Times carries articles about the group’s child sponsorship programs with headlines like “Kidnapping for God?” and “Buddhist and Hindu Children on Christian Auction Block?” Billboards are put up on roadsides with slogans such as: “Buddhists, Sinhalese, stand up and protect Buddhism for future generations” and “Defeat the Christian invasion and defend the Buddha Sasana.”
The tragic story of the persecuted church in Sri Lanka is only now emerging. One pastor who has faced trial and discrimination in his village told me: “No one listens to my story. Even my lawyer will not listen. You are the first person to sit down and listen, and it encourages me greatly.” Most Westerners look at me incredulously when I speak of militant Buddhism. But this story needs to be told. Bishop Peiris urged us to “make the world community, especially donor countries, know that there are violations of fundamental human rights in Sri Lanka, and that Sri Lanka is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” Article 18 of that covenant protects freedom of thought, conscience, and religion for all and guarantees “freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.”
The time has come for Sri Lanka to uphold its international obligations.