Throughout the year NGOs accused authorities of reluctance to investigate or prosecute those responsible for attacks on churches, Hindu kovils, and mosques and characterized this as indicative of a deepening “culture of impunity” that protected alleged Buddhist perpetrators. At times local police and government officials appeared to be acting in concert with Buddhist nationalist organizations, according to targeted Muslim and Christian groups and legal experts who noted that the prosecution of perpetrators was rare. Evangelical Christian churches, especially in the south, reported increased pressure and harassment by local government bodies to suspend worship activities as “unauthorized gatherings” 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 based on the circulars noted above.
The BBS continued to promote the supremacy of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist population and propagated views hostile toward members of religious and ethnic minorities. For example, BBS General Secretary Ven. Galagoda Atte Gnanasara Thero regularly made inflammatory statements about “Islamic invasion and aggression” and “forced conversions” by Christian groups as posing existential threats to Buddhism in the country. Local media and NGOs said there were strong linkages between the BBS and the government. At the BBS convention in September, leaders of the group called for a new constitution to protect the majority Sinhalese community.
Christians, particularly those from evangelical denominations, encountered harassment and physical attacks on property and places of worship by local Buddhists who stated they were opposed to conversion and believed Christian groups threatened them. On January 12, a Buddhist mob attacked two evangelical churches in the southern town of Hikkaduwa during services. The protestors caused thousands of dollars of damage, burning Bibles, breaking windows, and smashing musical instruments. The attack, filmed and broadcast nationally on Derana TV and posted on a social media site, showed police standing by while protesters carried out acts of destruction. Opposition United National Party (UNP) parliamentarian and Leadership Council Chair Karu Jayasuriya released a statement on January 14 accusing the Rajapaksa government of allowing religious and ethnic intolerance to “reign with impunity.”
Local authorities continued to cite the 2008 circular requiring prior government approval of new churches when they closed down churches, including those that predate the circular, even though it is not part of the law.
According to the evangelical Margaya Fellowship of Sri Lanka, the grama sevaka (village headman) visited the New Blessing Church in Valaichchenai in the Batticaloa District on August 24 while the Sunday worship service was in progress. He asked the pastor, Joseph Vedanayajam, whether the church was registered and said he had received an anonymous letter complaining about the pastor’s worship activities. The grama sevaka visited again August 29, to warn the pastor that he would face consequences if he failed to adhere to the “government requirement” to submit the church registration letter. This church has been registered since 1992 under the central government but not locally as a branch of the Margaya Fellowship of Sri Lanka. On August 31, a group of eight masked men assaulted the pastor of the New Blessing Church, his wife, 12-year-old daughter, and 15-year-old son with wooden poles studded with nails, cricket stumps, and iron rods. The family was hospitalized following the incident. Police arrested one of the attackers at the scene, but a magistrate ordered his release the next day on the grounds that he had to take a university exam. According to the leadership of the Margaya Fellowship, five attackers were arrested and produced in court in November after political pressure. They were set free after the church leadership expressed willingness to grant them forgiveness.
Although no law prohibits proselytizing, Jehovah’s Witnesses reported police physically attacked or reprimanded them at times for advocating their faith. On February 19, a mob assaulted and verbally abused seven Jehovah’s Witnesses in Galagedra, dousing women with muddy water and beating men with sticks. According to sources, authorities refused to investigate and prosecute the known perpetrators. Jehovah’s Witness representatives stated that on March 1, a woman invited a Jehovah’s Witness and her 58-year-old mother into her home in Talawa to preach their faith. Two Buddhist monks, along with a group of people and two police offices, arrived at the home and verbally harassed the women. Authorities arrested the two Jehovah’s Witnesses and detained them overnight without charges.
Church leaders, predominately those from unregistered evangelical churches, reported police used the revoked 2011 government circular in an attempt to coerce unregistered churches to register. 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. The NCEASL stated church closures were often carried out with the tacit support and even cooperation of local authorities. In March a group of 60 people led by six Buddhist monks attacked the pastor of the Good News Church in Mahiyangana (Badulla District) demanding closure of the church. The area police station was alerted of the incident, but police officers arrived on the scene after the mob had dispersed.
Some evangelical Christian groups reported incidents of governmental discrimination in the provision of services. Sources stated that some local authorities refused the building plans of pastors’ homes on the grounds they were attempting to construct a church, leaving some pastors living in temporary shelters. In July authorities in Naula, near Matale, denied a request for an electricity connection to the pastor of the Assemblies of God church. When officers from the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) visited the pastor’s premises to issue an electricity connection, some of the neighbors, reportedly instigated by village Buddhist monks, began to threaten the CEB officials against providing electricity to the pastor’s premises, stating they were an unauthorized place of worship. The CEB officers then left the premises. When the pastor lodged a complaint at the area police station, the officer in charge instructed the pastor to resolve the issue with the area divisional secretary (DS). Upon meeting the DS and an officer of the CEB, the pastor was informed of a petition lodged against him by Buddhist monks from the village stating that his premises were an unauthorized place of worship. Despite constitutional and legal protections against discrimination, the pastor was instructed to obtain approval from the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs to get the electricity connection.
On March 4, local press reported the magistrate in Gangodawila ordered the closure of the Dehiwela mosque based on a complaint from the police filed on February 20 that the mosque was not registered. The magistrate later granted the mosque permission to reopen. The magistrate observed that the 2008 circular regarding authorized places of worship could not supersede the approval of the Wakf Board, which is legally empowered to register mosques.
Human rights organizations and members of religious minority groups expressed concern that authorities tacitly condoned harassment and violence, particularly by Buddhist nationalist groups, against religious minorities. In multiple instances, police failed to respond or were reluctant to arrest or pursue criminal cases against individuals instigating attacks on minority religious sites.
The government failed to arrest and prosecute hardline Buddhist monks involved in numerous attacks against Muslims and Christians. Sources stated that Buddhist monks generally operated under the protection of the government, and some monks, particularly outside Colombo, operated with impunity in trying to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship on the grounds they were not registered. In April a group of 30 persons led by Buddhist monks stormed the premises of the New Life Living Church in Bandaragama, Kalutara District where Christians were praying and demanded they stop. The Christians immediately contacted the local police, but upon arriving on the scene, the officer in charge instructed church members to stop the prayer meetings.
On April 24, President Rajapaksa established a special religious police unit to deal with religious complaints. The new unit reports to the Ministry of Law and Order, although it is housed in the Buddhist Division of the Ministry of Buddhist Sasana and Religious Affairs. This announcement came during a meeting with selected print and electronic media editors, in which Rajapaksa acknowledged for the first time an increase in religiously motivated violence that he said should be stopped. Critics of the new police unit, including religious groups, political opponents, and NGOs, argued it would strengthen the hand of violent Buddhist groups, such as BBS, encourage religious sectarianism, reinforce police state measures, and further entrench a culture of impunity. Some religious minority groups stated that, because of how the unit is structured, they were afraid to report incidents of conflict or violence to the police unit for fear of retaliation.
The government gave each Tamil Hindu family evicted from its home in Dambulla 100,000 Sri Lankan rupees ($762) but took none of the other promised steps. In October 2013, 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 sources, 47 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. At year’s end, these families were living in the area with relatives and in rental homes.
In May trustees of Dambulla’s mosque agreed to a government offer to relocate the mosque and surrounding Muslim homes to another location, but authorities had taken no action to relocate the mosque by year’s end. Members of the Muslim community reported various continued acts of vandalism against the mosque, acts which increased in recent years. In 2013, a Buddhist leader in Dambulla demanded the mosque be removed because it was also located in a Buddhist “sacred zone.”
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 stated that this demonstrated government-sponsored Sinhalese colonization of majority-Tamil areas. The number of Buddhist shrines and religious sites in the northern Districts of Jaffna and Kilinochchi also increased.
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.