Buddhists target Christians

Observations on religious hatred

A militant Buddhist might sound like a comic contradiction in terms, but not in Sri Lanka. The island's small population of Christians increasingly faces death threats, arson, and assaults from militant Buddhists. More than 170 such incidents have been reported in the past two years. And this month Buddhist hostility to Christians could become enshrined in Sri Lanka's constitution, as parliament prepares to vote on the deceptively named Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom.

Though 70 per cent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, and only 8 per cent Christians, the act is supposedly designed to prevent Buddhism's decline. The law will make it a crime to try to convert a Buddhist to another religion. Penalties will range from heavy fines to seven years in prison.

Though the vast majority of Buddhists in Sri Lanka are non-violent, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka is recording attacks on church workers and churches, attacks which are as remarkable for their sadistic inventiveness as for their savagery. Last year, the Calvary Church in Wattegedara, 20km from the capital, Colombo, was attacked at midnight by a mob wielding bicycle chains and attempting to cut the telephone wires. A few days later, another night-time mob, dressed in black and white, smashed statues in a Catholic church and set Bibles on fire. In Anuradhapura, one of the island's top tourist destinations, men hurled buckets of excrement and engine oil around the church, then set off firecrackers in a failed attempt to burn it down. Elsewhere, a pastor's family was attacked, his wife beaten, and all their furniture, books and documents burned. Finally, the attackers took a sword and cut off the pastor's wife's hair.

Wilfred Wong of the human rights group Jubilee Campaign says: "The Christians in Sri Lanka hoped that, having helped with the victims of the tsunami, their relations with the Buddhists would improve." Instead, Christian-based charities were criticised in the Sri Lankan press for allegedly providing aid as an incentive for people to convert.

The less moderate Buddhists' strength increased after the emergence of Jathika Hela Urumaya, a nationalist political party consisting solely of Buddhist monks. It ran for election for the first time last year and won nine seats, making it a power-broker in a parliament where no single party had a majority. It proposed a bill for the prohibition of forcible conversion, rejected by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional. Yet the new Act for the Protection of Religious Freedom, despite having a more palatable title, is actually more stringent.

Benedict Rogers of Christian Solidarity Worldwide visited Sri Lanka recently. He reports that Christians are accused of everything, from eating cookies in the shape of a Buddha to instigating the Tamil Tiger bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy (the Sri Lankan equivalent of Saint Paul's Cathedral) and the Taliban's destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas.

The biggest of these "wild conspiracy theories", as Rogers calls them, concerned a Buddhist scholar-monk, the Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera, who died from heart failure in 2003. Assaults on churches followed, and several Buddhists went on hunger strike.

A Buddhist spokesman said: "Money was channelled here to silence those who spoke against the work of certain radical Christian sects . . . Soma Thera was right on top of their hit list."

This article first appeared in the 25 April 2005 issue of the New Statesman, How the greens were choked to death