Church torched in Sri Lanka amid mounting religious strife

A Roman Catholic church was set on fire near the Sri Lankan capital Colombo amid mounting inter-religious tension in this Buddhist majority island, police said.

The St. Michael's church at Katuwana, about 25 kilometres (15 miles) east of here, was attacked by an unidentified group of people who broke into the premises, destroyed statues and then set fire to the building, police and church members said on Thursday.

A police spokesman in the area said an investigation was underway and no arrests had been made.

Church member Dion de Silva said damage to property alone was estimated around half a million rupees (5,000 dollars). The statues and crosses had been destroyed.

"About 25 Buddhist monks came to our church two months ago and accused us of conversions," de Silva said. "We told them that we don't do that sort of thing, but they still pulled down our cross and put up a Buddhist flag. There has been no action taken following our complaint at the time."

Attacks against churches escalated last month following the funeral of a controversial Buddhist monk, Gangodavila Soma, who led a campaign against religious conversions.

The monk's death after he suffered a heart attack in Russia fuelled conspiracy theories despite medical reports that he died of natural causes.

Dozens of Buddhist monks launched a sit-down protest here last month outside the Buddhist Affairs ministry, demanding laws to ban what they call unethical conversions.

Christians make up 7.5 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, where more than 60,000 people have died in a 30-year armed campaign by separatist Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu.

The Sri Lanka constitution grants the foremost place to Buddhism, which is practised by nearly 70 percent of the island's 18.66 million people. Hindus make up about 15 percent and Muslims about 7.5 percent.