Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize many incidents as being solely based on religious identity.
According to civil society groups, social media campaigns targeting religious minorities fueled hatred and incited violence. According to press reports and civil society, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrate religious and ethnic minorities, especially via social media.
Civil society observers expressed concern the rhetoric of the BBS and other Buddhist nationalist groups incited societal actors to commit acts of violence against members of religious minority groups. Instigators of the violence in the March Kandy riots used social media to mobilize anti-Muslim crowds.
The NCEASL documented 74 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 97 cases in 2017.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses community reported discrimination and abuse against members of their community. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, on February 28 in Nikaweratiya, Northwestern Province, two Buddhist monks approached two female adherents at a bus stop and asked to see their identity cards. The monks reportedly also took pictures of the women, forcibly took literature from one of the women’s bags, and threatened to strip them and eject them from the area. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, at a subsequent police inquiry on March 5, the monks arrived with a crowd of more than one hundred who “behaved in a very frenzied manner,” causing the women to fear for their personal safety. Subsequently police told the owner of the house where Jehovah’s Witnesses meetings took place to stop allowing meetings to be held on her property. A legal case concerning the matter was pending at year’s end.
According to members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses community, on January 10, two adherents were returning from religious teaching when a Buddhist monk named Saddarathne, whom the Jehovah’s Witnesses identified as the chief monk of the Shrawasthipura Buddhist Temple, approached and intimidated them while recording a video. Saddarathne then reportedly assaulted one of them with a staff. Police arrested the monk on January 27 and released him on bail. The case remained unresolved at year’s end.
On March 26, an NGO reported unidentified individuals threw stones at the Lighthouse Church at Pupuressa in Kandy, damaging its roof. On March 28, the pastor lodged a complaint at the Gampola Police Station. No suspects were arrested.
According to NGO sources, on October 21, a crowd of approximately 100, including a Hindu priest and the chairman of a Hindu temple, issued death threats and verbally abused a Christian pastor and congregants of the Foursquare Church in Batticaloa. The Hindu priest reportedly stated the church was located on land belonging to the temple. The landowner, who had leased the land to the church, later produced his title deed to the land in question. The pastor stated police admonished the Hindu priest and the chairperson of the temple for their actions and threatened to arrest them if they disrupted the Christian worship activities in the future.
According to civil society sources, on October 20, the coordinating secretary to the chief minister of Uva Province ordered an Assemblies of God pastor in Badulla District to attend an official meeting. When the pastor arrived at the meeting, three villagers demanded the pastor stop construction of a church and attempted to persuade the coordinating secretary to support them. The official, however, affirmed the pastor’s right to carry out his religious worship activities.
Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the capacity of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees, consisting of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka created these committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war, fought between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.
The number of Christian groups worshiping in “house churches” (i.e., outside formally designated places of worship) grew.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses online news outlet JW.org reported that from July 6 to July 8, more than 14,200 Jehovah’s Witnesses from seven countries met in Colombo for the first “Be Courageous” Special Convention ever held in the country. At the convention, participants discussed religious issues, baptized individuals, and attended activities highlighting Sri Lankan culture.
According to the Asia Evangelical Alliance, from July 17 to July 20, a group of 22 lawyers and academics from the South Asia region held the South Asia Legal Consultation, entitled “Defending Religious Freedom,” in Colombo. Deputy Secretary General of the World Evangelical Alliance Godfrey Yogarajah and Director of the Asian Evangelical Alliance’s Religious Liberty Commission Yamini Ravindran were among the participants. Among the topics discussed were common trends, challenges, and strategies to promote religious freedom in the region.