Country Profile: Sri Lanka
Updated February 2016
Population: 22 million
Government type: Republic
Religion: Buddhist 70.2%; Hindu 12.6%; Muslim 9.7%; Christian 7.4%; Other 0.1%
In this island paradise, violence and turmoil have become as much a part of the landscape as its idyllic palm-lined beaches.
Known as Ceylon under British rule (which lasted till 1948), it changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972.
Independence from British colonial rule strengthened the cause of Buddhist Sinhala nationalists. By the 1980s the government was locked in armed conflict against the Hindu Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam who were pressing for self-rule.
Though the fighting was concentrated in the north of Sri Lanka, terrorist attacks and suicide bombings across the country claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
The bitter war concluded in May 2009, when the government defeated the LTTE. More than 300,000 people were displaced by the final stages of the conflict.
The scars of nearly two decades of fighting remain.
While the Sri Lankan constitution guarantees freedom of religion, the reality is very different.
Buddhism has been a part of Sri Lanka since the third century BC. It is officially protected and promoted as the majority religion.
Christianity, by contrast, was introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th century. Many consider it to be a foreign religion imposed by European colonials.
The growth of evangelical Christianity in Sri Lanka since 1980 has met with violent opposition from militant Buddhists, including Buddhist monks.
Churches have been burned and Christians attacked, even murdered, particularly since the 1990s as a response to effective evangelical outreach.
A rise in Buddhist nationalism has accompanied the increase in persecution. There was a noticeable upsurge in anti-Christian violence after 2012. This has abated somewhat, with a change in president in 2015.
In recent years, there have been upwards of 450 documented acts of violence against Christians, including arson and murder.
Churches have been damaged or demolished, and pastors and congregation members assaulted, sometimes seriously. Threats and intimidation are rife, forcing some Christians to leave their homes.
In many cases it is Buddhist monks who have led large mobs in attacks against the churches. Most assailants go unpunished.
In 2014 alone, 79 pastors were beaten, threatened, assaulted, arrested or humiliated. And 32 churches were attacked, closed or desecrated. The following incidents are indicative:
At Holy Family Church, in Asgiriya, Kandy District, a 250-strong mob led by 11 Buddhist monks stormed the pastor’s premises, demanding worship services be stopped immediately.
The mob dragged out the pastor and his wife and assaulted them. The leader described the Christians as traitors and warned villagers they would be treated the same way if they encouraged Christian worship in the village.
In June 2015, an Assemblies of God pastor from Gampaha district was abducted and assaulted after being called out to pray for the sick.
The pastor was kidnapped and driven to a nearby worship site where he was told he would have to kneel and ask forgiveness of religious leaders, on pain of death.
His abductors assaulted the pastor and threatened to destroy his church unless he closed it down.
Government officials and police are said to have done little to prevent the attacks, and even to have participated in them.
A government circular requires the registration of houses of worship and approval for new construction. Unregistered churches have been closed. The National Evangelical Christian Alliance of Sri Lanka reported 30 churches were forced to close in 2014.
Hindus and Muslims have also come under attack from Buddhist extremists. Anti-Muslim riots in 2014 killed four and displaced thousands. Government officials were again said to be complicit.
Militant Buddhists are pressing for a nationwide anti-conversion law and a ban on missionary groups. For years, Parliament has been discussing legislation to ban so-called ‘forcible conversions’. Christians fear this could easily be abused to limit church activities.
Radical Buddhists are now seeking increased political influence. If they succeed, extra pressure will be brought to bear against religious minorities.
However, Sri Lanka’s president, Maithripala Sirisena, who was elected in 2015, has pledged to uphold religious freedom, and observers note a welcome reduction in the numbers of attacks since then.
Current and recent projects include:
- Holding conferences to encourage pastors and their congregations in the face of persecution
- Providing a safe house for persecuted pastors and their families
- Support for the children of rural pastors with tailored support for each child
Sources: AsiaNews; BBC; International Christian Concern; Operation World; Persecution.org; Release International; The World Factbook 2010; UNHCR; USCIRF; VOM Canada; World Christian Database
Updated February 2016