Anti-Christian Feeling Rises in Buddhist Sri Lanka

The church bells were silent at Christmas across Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka.

After 20 years of civil war, Sri Lankans are no strangers to fear and violence, but as the island stumbles toward peace with the Tamil Tiger rebels it is grappling with a new problem -- a rise in anti-Christian sentiment.

The conflict has centered on the majority-Buddhist Sinhalese and the mostly Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), ignoring the 8 percent of the population that is Christian.

But that is changing since the death in December of a popular Buddhist monk who preached against conversions to Christianity.

His funeral on Christmas Eve drew thousands of mourners. But troops and armed police had to be called in to subdue crowds convinced that a conspiracy was behind the monk's death from a heart attack, prompting pastors to keep the bells silent at midnight mass for fear of attracting attention.

"The attacks are not something new. But the funeral gave kind of an excuse for this to escalate. It was a legitimate thing to attack Christians," said Godfrey Yogarajah, who heads the Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka.

Anger has mostly focused on evangelical churches, which make up about 1 percent of the Christian community and are relatively new to Sri Lanka compared to Catholicism, which took root with the arrival of Portuguese colonists in the 16th century.

But that did not stop vandals from attacking the Catholic church in one neighborhood.

"Two months ago they came with 25 to 30 monks and a group of laymen," said a 35-year-old sales manager who did not want to be named. "They brought a bo sapling and planted it, and removed the cross and put up a Buddhist flag," he said, referring to the tree under which Buddha is said to have received enlightenment.

The attackers returned recently, he added, this time to set fire to the pews and break the speaker system.


The orange robes and shaven heads of Buddhist monks are often equated with pacifism, but in Sri Lanka the clergy has long been a powerful political force.

They have helped scuttle past peace bids with Tamil Tiger rebels by sending a thousands of protesters into the streets, and while many support the island's current peace process, monks remain among its most vocal critics.

Now their political lobbying has spurred the government to say it will bring anti-conversion legislation, a move Christians fear would legitimize attacks.

Many say police are already hesitant to take action against the church attackers because of the power Buddhist priests hold in their community.

Analysts say most would not advocate violence, but that the monk's death is being used by Sinhala nationalist parties to generate political support from the Buddhist community.

"They see this constituency as one they can tap by creating this fear their religion is under threat," said Jehan Perera, of the National Peace Council, an independent think-tank.

"This also coincides with fears about concessions being made to the LTTE, so in a sense it has found fertile ground," he said.

Rev. Elle Gunawansa, a prominent Buddhist monk, deplores the violence against Christians, but says the Buddhist community -- more than 70 percent of the island's 19 million people -- are angry at conversions, which he says are encouraged by bribes or promises of employment.

"It is not a matter of numbers. It is not correct to unethically convert people," he said in his temple courtyard, a quiet oasis from the bustle of Colombo.

"Conversion is a problem. Buddhism has been reduced because of Western involvement," he said.


But the Evangelical Alliance's Yogarajah denies anyone is bribed to switch religions, and he says no cases have been brought to him, despite a pledge that he will investigate any instances he is notified of.

"We do not want to induce anyone to convert," he said. "Freedom of choice is very much rooted in our faith."

Sagara Gamage said there was no coercion behind his decision to give up his Buddhist upbringing for the Assembly of God.

"Earlier, I was not leading a correct life. So one day I went to the church and the pastor explained everything. I changed my life. I started to follow Jesus," he said.

The idea that conversions are made through inducements is "totally wrong," he says.

To the contrary, he says, rather than receiving, he gives 10 percent of his salary to the church.

"We have a duty to tell others, but not to convert. We cannot change somebody's heart," he said.