Catholic church attacked in escalating hate attacks in Sri Lanka

Armed police were deployed at a Roman Catholic church in this suburb of the capital Colombo after it was attacked amid worsening assaults on Christian places of worship.

Unidentified attackers smashed statues, windows and set fire to Bibles at the "Shrine of the Mother Most Pure" under the cover of darkness in this township 18 kilometres (11 miles) east of Colombo.

"We believe one gang is responsible for a spate of attacks like this on churches in this area," said police inspector Wijeyananda on Tuesday. "We have not made any arrests, but investigations are on."

He said several other churches in the neighbourhood had been provided with armed protection after a spate of hate attacks against them, but the latest victim had no police protection because it was not believed to be a target.

"This church had been here for 14 years and they have not had any problem with the neighbours," the inspector said as he surveyed the damage at the vandalised shrine.

The lay director of the church, Srahi Bongso, said the attack came as a surprise as they have had no problems with the majority Buddhist neighbourhood for years.

"I just cannot believe that we have been attacked like this," Bongso said. "But in a way, I could say we saw this coming because several other churches had been attacked recently."

Bongso, born a Muslim but who later converted to Catholicism, said the church here was not involved in converting people but had been open to worshippers from different faiths looking for healing.

She argued that proposed anti-conversion legislation was providing a moral justification for extremists to attack Christian places of worship.

The latest attack came three days after President Chandrika Kumaratunga vowed tough action against those responsible for smashing Christian churches.

Kumaratunga in a televised interview said dozens of churches had been attacked and warned tough action against anyone found helping the attackers.

Nine days ago, there was another attack on a Catholic church near here.

Kumaratunga, who holds the interior ministry portfolio, had asked police chief Indra de Silva to investigate the attacks and show no leniency in arresting those responsible.

The Roman Catholic church here condemned the attacks.

Some Buddhist monks have been demanding a law to ban what they call "unethical conversions". They argue that Christian sects offer cash to poor people to persuade them to convert, a charge Christian groups deny.

The 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 an autopsy showing he died of natural causes.

Dozens of Buddhist monks launched a sit-down protest in Colombo last month outside the Buddhist Affairs ministry, demanding legislation to ban 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.

Sri Lanka's 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.