Sri Lanka: Christians Cry For Justice Amid Anarchy

Colombo, Sri Lanka – In a worsening climate of impunity as Sri Lanka falls into civil war, Buddhist militants have continued their campaign against Christianity, attacking churches and threatening Christian schools.

Christians in Sri Lanka are calling for help from the international community following a rapid deterioration of law and order in the past week.

The plea follows an attack last Wednesday (November 8) by the Sri Lankan armed forces on refugees sheltered at a school in Kathiraveli, a coastal town in the eastern district of Batticaloa. The army reportedly fired multi-barrel rockets and artillery shells at the school, killing 60 civilians and wounding over 600.

Aid workers say they have recovered 40 bodies, including those of six babies from 3 to 6 months old.

The Rt. Rev. Duleep Chickera, Bishop of Colombo, said the attack on people who had already been forced to flee their homes has sent shock waves through the nation.

On Thursday (November 9), members of the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) protested on the steps of the United Nations office in Colombo, urging the U.N. to “stop the genocide against Sri Lankan Tamils.”

In response, gunmen on Friday (November 10) shot and killed Nadarajah Raviraj, a lawyer and member of parliament who took part in Thursday’s protest. Raviraj had strongly criticized the systematic killing of Tamil politicians, journalists, activists and civilians in recent months.

The Buddhist campaign against Christian churches and schools has intensified among the anarchy.

‘Cancel Christmas’

In late October, a group identifying itself as an “organization caring for children” sent letters to Protestant and Roman Catholic schools in and around Colombo demanding that they cancel all Christmas programs.

A spokesperson for a leading Catholic school said the letter they received warned of “severe repercussions” if Christmas events were not cancelled. Other schools received anonymous phone calls threatening “stern action” if they held such events.

At least one letter sent to a Catholic school called on children to sacrifice their Christmas festivities and instead send money to security forces serving in the north and east of Sri Lanka.

Father Cyril Gamini Fernando, speaking on behalf of the Catholic church, said forcing schools to stop Christmas programs was a violation of democratic rights. He added that Christmas programs were a source of enjoyment and “spiritual enrichment” for children and should not be withheld, particularly in a time of conflict.

Churches Burned Down

At an Assembly of God (AOG) church in Yakkala, Gampaha, a mob of around 50 people led by four Buddhist monks arrived on October 29 as church members gathered for a Sunday service. The chief monk and some others in the crowd demanded that the pastor cease the service and all future ones, insisting that Yakkala was a Buddhist village with no need for a Christian church.

The monks accused the pastor of offering money to villagers to persuade them to convert. The pastor denied the accusations and asserted the right of his church members to practice the religion of their choice. Due to fear of physical attack, however, he eventually agreed to cancel the service that day.

The monks left them with an ultimatum – that he should close down the church or “face the consequences.”

The pastor filed a complaint with police, and the church met without incident on November 5, but the threat continues. The church has experienced several similar incidents over the past year.

On the night of September 14, someone set fire to The Glorious Church of Jesus Christ in Mannar. Heavy winds made it difficult to put out the flames and the church was completely gutted.

Buddhist militants continued to threaten the pastor of King’s Revival Church in Piliyandala, and on September 17 unknown persons damaged the pastor’s van.

Neighbors of an AOG church on Bolaththa made an official complaint to police in September, claiming that church services were disturbing their community. Police summoned the pastor on September 27 and advised him to continue the services with minimal sound.

This church has faced tremendous opposition over the past year, with mobs frequently preventing people from attending worship services.

Further north, the Christians of Jaffna say government road-blocks have effectively cut off the Jaffna peninsula, leaving them in an “open prison.” The government hopes to prevent Tamil rebels from taking shelter amongst the crowds of internally displaced people in Jaffna, but the blockade has also prevented essential food and medical aid from reaching the refugees.

Earlier this year, government forces searched the church of 34-year-old priest Father Jim Brown in Jaffna, looking for Tamil rebels among the refugees sheltered there. Shortly after this search, Brown disappeared and is now presumed dead. The Rev. Thomas Savundaranayagam, Bishop of Jaffna, told the Christian charity Aid to the Church in Need that people are still “deeply depressed and discouraged” by Brown’s disappearance.

As the lines between civil war and religious harassment blur, Christians fear a further deterioration in religious freedom. Police and government departments increasingly lack the time, will power and resources to deal with religious disputes.