Sri Lankan Buddhists Target Christians for Monk's Death

The death of one of Sri Lanka's most venerated Buddhist monks while on a visit to Russia, has sparked allegations that he was murdered by Christian fundamentalists who he had long criticized, and the fear of a Buddhist backlash at his funeral slated for Wednesday.

The Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera, 57, had arrived in Russia on October 10 on a ten-day visit to accept an honorary doctorate conferred on him by the International University Of Fundamental Studies (IUFS) in St Petersburg.

But Thera fell ill immediately, dying of a heart attack on December 12, after being bed-ridden for several weeks.

His death was enough to stir the communal cauldron back in Sri Lanka, with the jingoistic elements among the Buddhists - who make up 71 percent of the country's population - crying foul play.

Leading Buddhist organizations took out countrywide protests, demanding the body be brought to Sri Lanka without an autopsy. The government had to make a special request to the Russian government in this regard.

By the time the monk's body was flown to the capital Colombo on December 18, the local media was hurling accusations at radical Christian sects which have long been active in Sri Lanka.

The Assembly of God, Pentecostal Church and Jehovah's Witness are some of the Christian sects against whom allegations of conversions have been leveled.

Mourners decorated the streets with yellow flags and leveled allegations against IUFS' Rector, a Sri Lankan who had invited the Venerable Soma Thera to Russia.

According to the Buddhists, the Rector, who is also a Christian priest and a degree holder in Christian Theology, had invited the monk to Russia with ulterior motives.

They allege that Soma Thera was eliminated because he was an outspoken critic of Christian missionaries who were converting Buddhists to Christianity.

The Buddhist organizations say it is highly unlikely that a healthy Soma Thera would have suddenly had a heart attack the day of his arrival in Russia.

They claim Christian forces conspired and murdered the articulate and charismatic monk who was also the head of the Buddhist temple in Perth, Australia in the 1990s.

Alleges the convenor of the National Buddhist Monks Congress, the Venerable Ellawala Medananda Thera, "Money was channeled here to silence those who spoke against the work of certain radical Christian sects that have even earned the wrath of the Roman Catholic Church here. Soma Thera was right on top of their hit list."

Significantly, prior to his Russia visit, in several newspaper interviews, Soma Thera had spoken about a plot to murder him by these sects.

The Sasana Sevaka Sangamaya, a lay organization formed by Soma Thera, claims it has information that Christian fundamentalists had arranged a sum of US $24,000 to silence him and Medananda Thera.

With his religious figurehead gone, the man on the street is in an agitated state.

"The Venerable Soma gave leadership to the Sinhala Buddhists who were blind to the threat to their religion. His voice was the true voice of the Sinhala Buddhists. Now that he is no more, there's no hope for us," laments retired literature teacher, Sumana Perera.

Soma Thera's untimely death has pumped anti-Christian sentiment in Sri Lanka to an all-time high. Warns political analyst Malinga Seneviratne, "Buddhists were aware of the manipulations of Western missionaries to convert Buddhists and Hindus to Christianity. After years of patience, it won't be surprising if they vent their anger on the day of the funeral."

But the Christians aren't ready to be thrown to the lions. Says an activist of the Assembly of God, Bandula Jayamanne, "The autopsy conducted on December 18 has made it clear that Soma Thera's death was caused by a heart attack. It is ridiculous to blame us."

He adds, "We have never been involved in unethical conversions and those who join our church are doing so because they are convinced of our teachings."

Sri Lanka's Roman Catholic Church too has admitted the fact that certain fundamental Christian sects have become a clear threat to Buddhist-Catholic unity.

The day Soma Thera's remains arrived in Colombo, the Colombo Archbishop, Oswald Gomis, issued a statement, the second in a matter of months, condemning the acts of certain Christian sects.

"We, the Bishops of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka, are deeply conscious of the social unrest allegedly caused by certain activities of the fundamentalist Christian sects, particularly by the more radical elements. Some of their reported activities have begun to endanger the peaceful co-existence among different sections of society," it stated.

It is clearly a fire-fighting move. Observers say that with Buddhist emotions running high, the Catholic Church is worried that people might go on the rampage if a detailed investigation reveals foul play. So it is desperate to set itself apart from other Christian sects.

While the government analysts' report is awaited, parallel investigations are on. On Saturday, the police put the Rector's brother, who accompanied Soma Thera to Russia, through a five-hour interrogation.

Interestingly, the latter, himself a Buddhist, and the editor of a Buddhist magazine published by Soma Thera for the last six months, has reportedly told the police he was not aware his brother was a Christian priest.

But the key question which remains unanswered is why Soma Thera - the country's strongest critic of Christian conversions - went all the way to Russia to get a doctorate on the invitation of a Christian reverend.

With Soma Thera's cremation fixed for Wednesday, the government - which is under tremendous pressure to crack the case - is taking no chances with security.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga has ordered the police and armed forces to crack down on anybody trying to foment trouble. This followed reports that some enraged nationalist groups might unleash violence on the day of the cremation.

Mainstream leaders have called for restraint. Says the ruling United National Front strongman and Minister of Environment, Rukman Senanayake, "Since investigations are still on, it is premature to say what caused his death. But that should not be a reason for anybody to give wrong interpretations to the whole episode. Everybody should act prudently."

Catholics comprise 6.4 percent of Sri Lanka's total population of 19 million. The other Christian sects comprise a little less than 1 percent.