The constitution states every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” It gives citizens the right to manifest their religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching both in public and in private. The constitution and other laws give Buddhism “foremost place” and commit the government to protecting it. Civil society organizations such as the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA), Center for Human Rights and Research, and others said the new government, which took office in January, pursued an agenda including a renewed commitment to the rule of law and willingness to investigate and prosecute state officials implicated in or responsible for inciting past religiously based violence. There were instances, however, in which local police and local government officials appeared to act in concert with Buddhist nationalist organizations, although not to the extent as previously. For example, police continued to cite outdated government circulars restricting the construction of religious facilities in attempts to force churches to cease operations. In multiple instances, police reportedly failed to respond or were reluctant to arrest or pursue criminal cases against individuals instigating attacks on minority religious sites. CPA noted in its “Advocacy Brief – Human Rights Violations and Surveillance in Sri Lanka,” which covered the period from January to September (hereafter CPA Brief), the government had not yet prosecuted hardline Buddhist monks involved in attacks in 2014 against Muslims and Christians. Parliament’s passage of the Assistance to and Protection of Victims of Crime and Witnesses Act in February strengthened safeguards for persons involved in legal actions against criminal perpetrators implicated in attacks upon religious sites.
Sources stated Buddhist monks continued to operate with government protection, and some monks, particularly outside Colombo, regularly tried to close down Christian and Muslim places of worship on the grounds they lacked the Ministry of Justice and Buddha Sasana’s approval. The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented a total of 87 cases of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during the year. NCEASL had reported a total of 96 such incidents in 2014. The Secretariat for Muslims (SFM) recorded 82 incidents of hate speech, acts of discrimination, attempts to desecrate or destroy Muslim religious edifices, and verbal insults upon or use of physical force to impede Muslim cultural practices and rituals, a 62 percent reduction from the previous year. There were no reported deaths related to interreligious disputes. The Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Power Force, continued to promote the supremacy of the country’s ethnic Sinhalese Buddhist population and propagated views hostile toward members of religious and ethnic minorities.
The U.S. Ambassador urged government leaders at the most senior levels, including President Maithripala Sirisena, to arrest and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against religious minorities and to protect religious freedom for all citizens. The embassy continued to meet regularly with representatives from a broad range of religious groups to promote cooperative engagement and strengthen bonds between and among various religious and ethnic communities.