Violence and discrimination against minority Christians is widespread in Sri Lanka with the support of state officials and institutions at the local level, a think tank that analysed data over two decades has said.
“The figure suggests that, for the past two decades, on average, an attack has taken place against a Christian person or group every week,” Verité Research, a Colombo-based think tank, said. “This trend has continued despite repeated government changes during this period.”
Verité analysed 972 cases of discrimination and violence compiled by a Christian group, National Christian Evangelical Association of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).
Local officials are also enthusiastically implementing a state circular against places of worship, which had no legal basis.
The report comes amid an upsurge of nationalist violence against Muslims, which was carried out with impunity while police stood by, with a senior minister also alleged protecting the perpetrators, including a Buddhist monk. Over the last two weeks, police have started to arrest persons who damage private property.
NCEASL had said there were 190 incidents of religious violence against Christians or Christian places of worship since January 2015 since the current administration came to power.
“Although the incidence of physical violence is lower than in previous years, threats, intimidation and ‘administrative restrictions have been used to target religious minorities,” the think tank noted.
Many of the acts are perpetrated by state workers.
“A state institution or public servant was recorded as the key perpetrator of religious violence against Christians in 175 incidents (18 percent of all recorded incidents) between 1994 and 2014.”
Meanwhile, state data on religions violence was weak, the think tank said. In February 2014, the last regime had claimed that 95 out of 105 attacks deemed to be religiously motivated were merely local robberies.
Minority Rights International had noted that the state was a key perpetrator in 31 percent of incidents against Christians between November 2015 and September 2016.
Discrimination included restrictions on the freedom of worship and the denial of entry to state schools on grounds of religious belief,
“These attacks include restrictions on the freedom of worship, the denial of entry to state schools on grounds of religious belief, and the refusal to act against perpetrators of religious violence,” the think tank said.
Although religious freedom is provided in Sri Lanka’s constitution in 2008, an illegal circular on the construction of new places of worship was widely implemented against minorities by state actors.
“The Circular, which was issued by the then Ministry of Religious Affairs and Moral Upliftment, required the registration of ‘new places of worship’, and was used to shut down existing churches or worship services that had not registered with the authorities,” Verite noted.
“However, the Circular lacked any legal basis, as no law authorises the Ministry to regulate places of worship in such a manner.” In 2013 and 2014, 39 places of worship was shut down by officials using the circular.
“Between November 2015 and September 2016, NCEASL reported 14 incidents against Christians that involved the use of the Circular. Data from the past two decades suggest that religious violence is deeply rooted in Sri Lankan society due to its chronic and systemic nature, and the state’s role in enabling it. Therefore, the occurrence of religious violence is not necessarily dependent on a specific government in charge.”
Liberty advocates say Sri Lanka went into a period of heavy state intervention after independence, borrowing from Eastern Europe, ranging from robbing language freedoms to property rights as freedoms retreated.
Widespread state interventions help people accept the coercive power of the state on their lives and strengthened the hands of illiberal state officials who want to carry out such tasks.
In such an environment, giving political effect to underlying chauvinism becomes almost inevitable, they say. In Germany, Nazism against minority Jews (by majority Christians) came afer serveral decades of heavy economic intervention and protectionism.
Sri Lanka is now moving into a phase where the state is not only intervening in people’s religious beliefs but also to control what they eat or consume.