Although the government officially endorsed religious freedom, in practice there were problems in specific areas. NGOs accused authorities of reluctance to investigate or prosecute those responsible for attacks on churches, Hindu kovils (temples), and mosques and characterized this as indicative of a deepening “culture of impunity” that protected alleged Buddhist perpetrators.
On October 29, the Urban Development Authority, heeding the calls of area Buddhists in Dambulla, bulldozed the Hindu Dambulla Badhrakaali Amman Kovil near the separate Buddhist temple to make way for a pond in the Dambulla Buddhist “sacred zone.” According to various sources, more than 40 Tamil Hindu families who had paid rent to Sinhalese landowners in the area surrounding the kovil for over three generations were evicted with the promise of alternative living arrangements, but local authorities did not fulfill the promise.
Buddhists in Dambulla also demanded that a nearby mosque be removed because it was also located in the “sacred zone.” Disagreements about the presence of the mosque led to confrontations between Buddhists and Muslims, including acts of vandalism against the mosque. The mosque had been slated for destruction in 2012 to expand the major north-south A9 highway, but area Muslims held the deeds to their properties and gained concessions to divert the highway.
The Sinhala Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, “Forces of Buddhist Power”) continued to promote views religious and ethnic minorities considered hostile. Local media and NGOs noted strong linkages between the BBS and the government, particularly Secretary of Defense (and brother of the president) Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who appeared prominently at public BBS events during the year. In response to pressure from this group, municipal councils began passing regulations prohibiting the slaughter of cows, a BBS demand, in their areas.
At times, local police and government officials appeared to be acting in concert with Buddhist nationalist organizations. Evangelical Christian churches, especially in the south, reported increased pressure and harassment by local government bodies to suspend worship activities or close down if they were not registered with the government, despite no legal requirement to do so. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) stated that “dozens” of churches from all parts of the country had been questioned about their legality by local government officials and police.
Church leaders, predominately from unregistered evangelical churches, reported that police used a government circular from 2011 in an attempt to coerce unregistered churches to register, even though the circular was subsequently revoked. The circular had required all places of worship to register, but was replaced by a new circular that only applied to new places of worship, which are required to register after procuring a “no objections” letter from local Buddhist officials. In some such instances, police warned church leaders that if their places of worship remained open, security forces would be unable to protect them from vandalism or attacks.
On December 1, the opening day of services at the Methodist Church of Habarana inAnuradapura District, Buddhist monks reportedly led a mob of 200 villagers that destroyed the church. Two police Criminal Investigation Division (CID) officers arrived at the scene and ordered the church to shut down because it had no legal recognition to operate, citing a circular issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. The next day, the CID officers instructed the pastor of nearby Believers Church to close down for the same reason, even though the church had been functioning in the village for the past seven years and was legally incorporated.
The pastor of the Church of Grace in Warakapola, Kegalle District received a letter from the divisional secretariat dated November 11, instructing him to stop all religious worship activities. The letter referenced an August 2009 circular. The same pastor was violently attacked in December 2012. A case against the pastor for allegedly breaking the peace remained unresolved at year’s end.
On September 8, police prohibited Praise Prayer Lanka Church, which had been operating in a Colombo suburb for 24 years, from holding services without proper registration. Police informed church officials that failing to register could open the church to attacks and disturb the peace. The church was compelled to suspend services, but resumed them two weeks later after sending the requested registration application documents. The church had yet to receive a response from the government and at the end of the year services were continuing. Church officials said the church had been registered for years with the divisional secretary and, under the former government, with the Christian ministry before it was subsumed by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs under the current government.
On August 1, while responding to a protest over contaminated water, security forces in Weliweriya, Gampaha District, entered a Catholic church and beat protesters who had entered the church seeking shelter. Video taken after the incident showed bullet holes in the church walls.
In May the divisional secretary of Hambantota District issued an ultimatum to evangelical Christian churches to show their registration documents or face closure. According to NCEASL officials, a senior member of the Buddhist clergy from the district publicly stated that Buddhist monks had already closed down 17 churches. The NCEASL stated these closures were often carried out with the tacit support and even cooperation of local authorities.
On February 17, two police officers, the village officer, and five officers of the divisional secretariat disrupted a prayer meeting in progress at the Christian Prayer Centre in Ingiriya, Kaluthara District. Police told the 15-20 Christians gathered for prayer their meeting was illegal, stating they did not have prior approval to hold prayer meetings there. The divisional secretary said a gathering for worship of more than 10 persons would be considered a “church” which would require prior approval to hold such gatherings. According to local human rights groups, there was no legal basis for such a claim.
Some Christian groups, in particular denominations with a more recent presence in the country, reported an increase in complications obtaining local permission to construct church buildings. Evangelical groups reported increasing difficulty in registering new churches or reregistering as corporations. Several smaller congregations were denied permission to register with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs as churches, reportedly because they were not members of the National Christian Council, an umbrella organization representing “traditional” Protestant churches. Reportedly local authorities sometimes did not want these groups operating in their districts due to allegations of “unethical” conversions and to pressure by local Buddhist groups.
Some evangelical Christian groups reported incidents of governmental discrimination in the provision of services. Some government schools required minority Christian students to attend Buddhist religion classes because there were no teachers available to teach classes on Christianity. There were also reports of government schools refusing to enroll Christians because of their religion.
The government continued to limit the issuance of temporary work permits for foreign religious workers and clergy. Work permits for foreign clergy were issued for one year but could be extended.
Following the conclusion of a 27-year conflict between the Buddhist-majority government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), government troops continued to build Buddhist shrines in Tamil areas of the north, which are home to primarily Hindu but also Christian and Muslim populations. Some Tamil groups alleged this demonstrated government-sponsored Sinhalese colonization of former LTTE-held areas. The number of Buddhist shrines and religious sites in the northern districts of Jaffna and Kilinochchi also increased.