The constitution of Sri Lanka encodes religious freedom, and the country’s legal framework, although it prioritizes Buddhism, generally does not actively discriminate against Christianity. However, societal discrimination, including attacks on churches and church leaders, was rampant under the previous regime, in part owing to official reluctance to identify or punish persecutors. In addition, on occasion, local authorities have arbitrarily restricted the ability of churches to function. Social tensions largely stem from the comparatively privileged place Buddhism occupies within Sri Lanka, with nationalist Buddhist monks often responsible for attacks against Christians.
Scholarly Analysis: Christian Responses to Persecution in Sri Lanka
India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, Pakistan, Indonesia
Panel: Findings from South Asia, with Dr. Paul Bhatti, Advisor to the Prime Minister of Pakistan for Minority Affairs
Moderator: Chad Bauman, Butler University
Speakers: Robert Hefner, Boston University
James Ponniah, University of Madras
Reginald Reimer, Expert on Christianity in Vietnam & Laos
Sara Singha, Georgetown University
Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist (70 percent) nation of roughly 22 million people, but Christians, along with Muslims and Hindus, constitute a major minority. Roughly 7 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Christian; roughly 12 percent of Sri Lankans identify as Hindu; roughly 10 percent are Muslim, although some statistics present slightly larger Christian populations or smaller Hindu and Muslim populations. Among Christians, most—roughly 80 percent—are Roman Catholics, largely due to Portuguese colonial influence. The remainder identifies as a variety of Protestant and other groups, but principally these are Anglicans, along with a growing number of evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christians are found throughout Sri Lanka, but are concentrated especially in the northwest of the island, and cut across major ethnic groups—Sinhalese and Tamil—within Sri Lanka.
History of the Sri Lankan Christian Community
Christians may have arrived in Sri Lanka long before Europeans, possibly as a result of communication with India, where the Apostle Thomas is believed to have attempted to spread Christianity. But the contemporary—predominantly Catholic—Christian community in Sri Lanka descends from the colonial influence of the Portuguese, who arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505 and regularly traveled with Catholic missionaries. The Dutch, British, and Portuguese simultaneously plied and inhabited the coastline of Sri Lanka through the early nineteenth century, when the British gained colonial control of the whole island until independence in 1948. In the post-colonial period, the Sri Lankan Civil War and Tamil insurgency have dominated public life. The Tamil insurgency generally opposed a Buddhist majority government, which sought and still seeks to strengthen the role of Buddhism as a favored religious community. In the mid-2000s, Christians faced a series of several hundred violent attacks. From 2005 until 2015, the government led by Mahindra Rajakasa appears to have turned a blind eye to these attacks, or perhaps even encouraged them, because of his reliance upon the strong of Sinhalese (Buddhist) nationalists. His electoral defeat, in January 2015, has brought Sri Lanka’s minorities a significant degree of hope.
Current Situation of the Christian Community
The constitution of Sri Lanka encodes religious freedom, and the country’s legal framework, although it prioritizes Buddhism, generally does not actively discriminate against Christianity. However, societal discrimination, including attacks on churches and church leaders, was rampant under the previous regime, in part owing to official reluctance to identify or punish persecutors. In addition, on occasion, local authorities have arbitrarily restricted the ability of churches to function. Social tensions largely stem from the comparatively privileged place Buddhism occupies within Sri Lanka, with nationalist Buddhist monks often responsible for attacks against Christians. The growth of evangelical Christian denominations has provided cover for accusations of unethical—induced—conversions conducted by Christians, fanning anti-Christian sentiment within Sri Lanka. Attacks against Christians often come in the form of mob violence, as in the cases of a 300 person mob attacking the opening of a Roman Catholic church or a group of assailants attempting to set fire to a Christian priest’s home (the group dispersed upon their discovery). Under the previous regime, such attacks were met with special impunity for Buddhists in Colombo, where in March 2013 a group of roughly 100 assailants attacked congregants in an Assemblies of God Church, in response to which police ordered the cessation of church services without pursuing charges against the assailants. Christians, then, face occasional outburst of violence, particularly attempts by Buddhist nationalists to eliminate their places of worship. Notably, the government has largely failed to intervene despite its constitutional commitments to religious liberty, though Christians perceive the official support the perpetrators of such crimes received under the previous regime to have declined substantially, or even disappeared completely, under the current regime.
A Summary of Christian Responses to Persecution in Sri Lanka
The Sri Lankan constitution provides moderate protections of religious freedom, but majoritarian Buddhist nationalists demand that their religion be given special consideration while framing “foreign” religions like Islam and Christianity (the latter particularly despised for its association with colonization and globalization) as a threat to the sovereignty and identity of the nation. Sri Lanka’s constitution already reserves a special place for Buddhism, though some Buddhist nationalists would like to see that privilege strengthened and more widely imposed. The state, particularly the army, regularly participates in the blatant Buddhisization of non-Buddhist space.
Sri Lanka has considered establishing national laws circumscribing religious conversion that would be used primarily to prevent conversion away from the majority religion. Christians have been falsely charged and imprisoned, prevented from engaging in worship and/or building churches through the imposition of legal or bureaucratic hurdles, physically harassed, beaten, injured, and killed, in hundreds of documented incidents occurring with particular frequency since the end of the twentieth century.
Fortunately, recent elections have brought some hope to Christians in Sri Lanka. In January 2015, President Mahinda Rajapaksha—who had subsisted on the strength of Singhalese Buddhist nationalism, which he himself helped produce by engineering and accommodating anti-minority violence—was defeated. Hi successor, Maithripala Sirisena, is widely perceived as a more temperate, inclusive leader, under whose reign the frequency of attacks on Christians has fallen dramatically.
Christians in Sri Lanka attempt to address their situation in a variety of ways. For one, they have reduced the visibility and assertiveness of their evangelistic endeavors, and many have shifted their energies towards social service projects. To overcome legal and bureaucratic hurdles preventing their assembly and/or the construction of worship spaces, congregations increasingly meet in homes, or build churches surreptitiously, or secure permission for construction by designating the structures “service centers,” “community halls,” and the like.
Christians have also increased their engagement with people of other faiths, investing more energetically in interfaith dialogue, celebrating non-Christian holidays, adapting elements of other religions into Christian belief and practice, and participating in collaborative, interfaith service and civil space projects with the aim of undermining the allegation that Christian charity is merely a pretext for conversion. Sri Lankan Christians have also increased their engagement with the political process, ever more fiercely promoting secular values and defending religious freedom, and advocating both rhetorically and legally for those negatively affected by anti-Christian currents. While skeptics abound, even among Christians, many of these efforts can boast of having improved interfaith relations and the lives of Christians in real and concrete (if often quite local and limited) ways.
This country profile draws on research by Dr. Chad Bauman and on the report In Response to Persecution by the Under Caesar's Sword project.