There were reports of societal abuses and discrimination based on religious affiliation, belief, or practice. Although discrimination based on religious differences was much less common than discrimination based on ethnicity, societal discrimination based on religious belief increased during the year. In general, members of different religious groups tended to be tolerant of each other’s religious beliefs, although there was at times an atmosphere of distrust. Incidents such as the destruction of places of worship by Buddhist monks exacerbated such tensions.
A survey by the Asia Foundation, an international NGO working in the country, found that religious tension continued to be a problem among Muslim, Tamil, Christian, and Buddhist groups. Sixty-four percent of those surveyed believed that attempts to convert people from one religion to another should not be tolerated, a perception that was relatively consistent across all religious groups. The survey also found that religious minorities considered themselves free to express religious opinions in their local areas; however, higher percentages of Muslims and Hindus did not feel free to express religious opinions in public.
Christians, particularly those from evangelical denominations, sometimes encountered harassment and physical attacks on property and places of worship by local Buddhists who were opposed to conversion and believed Christian groups threatened them. The number and severity of the attacks reportedly diminished somewhat during the year. The NCEASL reported attacks on Christian churches, organizations, religious leaders, and congregants; many of the attacks were reported to the police. Credible sources confirmed some of these attacks.
On December 9, in the southern town of Weeraketiya (Hambanthota District), a mob of approximately 350 persons led by up to 80 Buddhist monks stormed and attacked a church during services. The mob caused serious damage to furniture and equipment within the building, as well as to vehicles belonging to church members. The attackers injured the pastor and reportedly assaulted two police officers when they attempted to stop the violence. Authorities deployed additional police and soldiers to control the mob; however the police made no arrests.
One day prior to the Weeraketiya violence, a group of Buddhist monks and laypersons had visited the church and informed the pastor that he could not conduct Christian worship in the town without permission from the Buddhist clergy. The monks issued an ultimatum to the pastor to stop the church services, and threatened to destroy the church.
Buddhist monks were under the protection of the ruling coalition government. Some monks, particularly outside the capital of Colombo, operated with impunity in trying to eliminate Christian and Muslim places of worship. At least 50 incidents of violence against Christians were recorded by Christian groups during the year. On August 9, for example, a mob attacked the pastor of an Assembly of God church, as well as his wife and a female worker of the Methodist church in Deniyaya.
On August 19, independent media reported that Buddhist monks forcibly occupied the premises of a Seventh-day Adventist church and converted it into a Buddhist temple in Deniyaya town in Southern Province’s Matara District. On August 27, a mob of approximately 100 people assaulted two church leaders outside the Deniyaya police station for reporting the incident to the police. The case was under investigation at year’s end.
NGOs reported several incidents of discrimination against Muslims. On April 20, Buddhist monks attacked a Dambulla mosque during Friday prayers, claiming the mosque (built in 1962) was an illegal structure built on sacred Buddhist land. Reportedly, the government ordered the removal of the mosque.
On May 25, around 250 Buddhist monks gathered at a mosque in Dehiwala and began throwing stones and rotten meat over the gate. The protestors demanded the closure of the mosque, claiming it performed regular animal sacrifices, an accusation the mosque denied. The mayor of Dehiwala called for an inspection, and reported he found the mosque to be an illegal construction.
In July during Ramadan, Buddhist monks forcibly entered a mosque in Kurunagala and demanded it be shut down. Members of the mosque filed a complaint at the Welawa police station, and subsequently the police ordered the mosque to be shut down.