THE persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka is continuing, despite hopes that the new government elected last year would rein in Buddhist extremists, a human-rights lawyer from the island has said.
The lawyer, “Miriam”, declined to give her real name for fear that she would also be targeted. There had been no reduction in violence and the legal harassment of Christians in the eight months since the election, she said.
“Initially, when the new government came into place, I did think incidents of persecution against Christians would radically drop,” she said on Tuesday, during a visit to the UK. “To my surprise, they did not. I realise the mind-set of the people has not changed.”
Under the previous government, led by President Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose coalition included Sinhalese nationalist parties, extremist Buddhist groups frequently attacked pastors and churches.
But, despite Mr Rajapaksa’s and his allies’ fall from power, the intimidation of Christians had not lessened, Miriam said.
“With the new government, there is an increase of legal restrictions and strategic persecution. This is actually far more concerning, because it is at a local-government level. These are the people whom we seek protection from.”
Since the election in August last year, Miriam’s organisation has documented 120 incidents of religious persecution against Christians, who make up about seven per cent of Sri Lanka’s population.
In one of the worst cases, a mob, led by 12 Buddhist monks, burnt down a pastor’s home in Hambantota District, in July.
In May, a church leader in Gampaha District was lured into meeting someone who had asked him to come and pray for their mother. Instead, he was assaulted, and told that if he did not stop worship at his church, it would be torn down.
Other churches threatened by Buddhist extremists have found that the police will not act to protect them. In some villages, churches have been forcibly stopped from conducting burials according to Christian rites.
Miriam said that many rural Sri Lankans saw Christianity as a Western faith, and associated it with the colonial era. The rise of Evangelical Christianity in recent decades has also been seen as a threat, leading to attempts to pass laws banning conversion.
Her organisation often advised Christians and churches who were falsely accused of breaking the law, but the system was stacked against them, she said.
When faced with a religious-freedom case, judges often delayed hearings for more than a year, or forced the victims to come to an out-of-court settlement to avoid having to make a judgment that would set a precedent favouring religious minorities.
“The judicial system is very biased,” Miriam said. “Often, when cases of religious freedom are filed, the judges basically force the victim, who is often a pastor, to settle the case with the assaulter, someone who has beaten them up.”
She asked British churchpeople to pray that Christians in Sri Lanka would not stop their ministry in the face of attacks and violence.
Paul Robinson, the chief executive of Release International, which supports Miriam’s work, said: “Time and again, we hear that it is Buddhist monks who are leading the attacks against the churches . . . the monks are being aided by pro-Buddhist authorities. This has to be brought into the spotlight.”