Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom
Because religion, language, and ethnicity are closely linked, it was difficult to categorize most incidents of harassment or discrimination as being solely based on religious identity.
According to civil society groups, highly visible social media campaigns targeting religious minorities, in particular the Muslim community, continued to fuel hatred and incite violence. According to press reports and civil society representatives, Buddhist nationalist groups such as the BBS continued to promote what it called the supremacy of the ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist majority and denigrated religious and ethnic minorities, especially in social media. Civil society groups said authorities did not act against those inciting hatred against the Muslim and Tamil community.
According to press reports, police and security forces launched an investigation into damage caused by stones pelted at six roadside Catholic shrines in Mannar, a predominantly Catholic community with a considerable number of Hindus and Muslims, between July 12 and July 14. Press reported police suspected the attacks were designed to disrupt harmony in the multireligious community. Investigations led to the arrest of one suspect, who suffered from mental illness, The Morning reported. Bishop of Mannar Emmanuel Fernando told The Morning that the Catholic Church did not believe these incidents were ethnically or religiously motivated.
Hashtag Generation, a local NGO that analyzes trends in online dangerous speech said the outbreak and spread of the COVID-19 pandemic led to an intensification of anti-Muslim rhetoric online, including hate speech, disinformation and harassment. When the government reversed the mandatory cremation policy in February to allow for burial of COVID-19 victims, the NGO stated that this led to further anti-Muslim online content, mainly on YouTube, portraying this as a deviation from the government’s “One Country, One Law” concept. In October, Hashtag Generation said Muslims were the main ethnoreligious group targeted online, with posts portraying Muslims as terrorists or being responsible for the spread of COVID-19. Of the 188 incidents that the NGO recorded in October, five targeted ethnoreligious or religious groups, four against Muslims and one against Catholics. NGOs reported two narratives appeared to drive discrimination against Muslims: the perceived “cultural peculiarities of Muslims (Islamic law and religious attire) and the fear of Muslim encroachment.” According to NCEASL, discrimination against Hindus centered on land issues and cultural heritage, while Christians experienced individualized forms of hate speech.
In an April report entitled “Countering Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hatred to eliminate discrimination and intolerance based on religion or belief” presented to the UN Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Shaheed said that disinformation rapidly proliferated online that stated Muslims deliberately spread COVID-19 in the country.
NCEASL reported that in February a number of high-profile conversions to Christianity led to what it said were inflammatory claims on mainstream and social media against evangelical churches. According to The Morning, in a February press statement, Archbishop of Colombo Ranjith urged the government to formulate a legal framework against what he called self-proclaimed pastors who targeted celebrities, including artists and athletes, for what he said were unethical conversions, conversions for financial gain or in order to access services such as education. On February 17, Buddhist Asgiriya Chapter Supreme Sangha Council Secretary Medagama Dhammananda Thero told The Morning that in recent times, evangelical pastors targeted highly influential political and cultural figures for unethical conversions, as opposed to poorer individuals from rural areas.
NCEASL documented 77 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation of and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year, compared with 50 cases in 2020. Of these, 40 involved threats, intimidation, or coercion, 40 were discriminatory actions or practices, nine involved property damage or destruction, seven were related to hate campaigns or propaganda, and three involved physical violence, with one incident possibly including multiple factors. In 11 instances, NCEASL said crowds intimidated or attacked pastors, their family members, or congregants. NCEASL also documented 10 incidents of religious freedom violations against Muslims and three incidents against Hindus.
According to NCEASL, on July 16, members of the funeral endowment society of Alakolawewa village in Nuwara Eliya District visited the home of a deceased Christian from the Smyrna Church and asked the Christian family to conduct its religious rituals at home and refrain from inviting a pastor to perform funeral rites at the cemetery. They further told the family to conduct the burial according to Buddhist rituals, but the family refused to comply. On July 17, following opposition from residents, the family was not able to bury the individual in the cemetery.
According to NCEASL, unidentified individuals desecrated and covered with mud two burial sites close to the Kuragala Jailani Mosque in Kurunagala District between July 26 and 31. The burial sites are of historical significance to the local Muslim community. The mosque’s management lodged a complaint with the Kaltota police station regarding the incident, but they later withdrew it to avoid “religious disharmony.”
According to NCEASL, on April 2, three men threatened a pastor from the Gospel Tabernacle Church in Pandiyankulam, Mullaitivu District for continuing religious worship activities in the village. Later, one of the men assaulted the pastor, beating him over the head with a bicycle pump and helmet. On April 3, the pastor lodged a complaint at the Pandiyakulam police station. He later admitted himself to the Malavi Base Hospital. The police arrested a suspect and filed a case at the Mullaitivu Magistrate’s Court only after a senior pastor from the Church headquarters in Colombo travelled to Mullaitivu to intervene on behalf of the pastor.
Civil society organizations continued efforts to strengthen the ability of religious and community leaders to lead peacebuilding activities through district-level interreligious reconciliation committees consisting of religious and civic leaders and laypersons from different faith traditions and ethnicities. The NGO National Peace Council of Sri Lanka created the committees in 2010 following the end of the civil war between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the primarily Hindu and Christian Tamil minority.