Sri Lanka

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

Christian Demographics

Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist (70 percent) nation of roughly 23 million people, but Christians, along with Muslims and Hindus, constitute a major minority. According to U.S. government estimates, roughly 7.4 percent of the population of Sri Lanka is Christian; roughly 12.6 percent of Sri Lankans identify as Hindu; roughly 9.7 percent are Muslim. 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. Christian communities exist throughout Sri Lanka but are concentrated especially in the northwest of the island and claim members from 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 contemporaryand 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 that lasted until Sri Lanka gained 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 Mahinda Rajakasa appears to have turned a blind eye to these attacks, or perhaps even encouraged them, because of Rajapaksa’s reliance upon the strength of Sinhalese (Buddhist) nationalists.  His electoral defeat, in January 2015, brought Sri Lanka’s minorities a significant degree of hope.

Current Situation of the Christian Community

The constitution of Sri Lanka encodes religious freedom while enshrining Theravada Buddhism as the national religion. Although the country’s legal framework prioritizes Buddhism, it does not directly discriminate against Christianity. However, social tensions largely stem from the comparatively privileged place Buddhism occupies within Sri Lanka, as nationalist Buddhist monks are often responsible for attacks against Christians. The growth of evangelical Christian denominations has provided cover for accusations of unethical, induced or targeted conversions conducted by Christians, fanning anti-Christian sentiment. Under President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s decade-long administration, societal discrimination against Christians was rampant, as officials often failed to prosecute sectarian actors, even supporting their claims against their victims and occasionally barring churches from functioning. In December 2012, for instance, a mob of roughly 1,000 people, led by roughly 80 Buddhist monks, attacked a Sunday worship service, vandalized the church, and beat its pastor after overpowering police. In March 2013 in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, a group of roughly 100 assailants attacked congregants in an Assemblies of God Church. In response, police ordered the church to discontinue worship services and did not pursue charges against the assailants. After President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s electoral defeat in January 2015, although Christians continued to suffer sporadic incidents of intimidation and violence, Christian communities perceived improvement in conditions as authorities under the new administration largely stopped supporting the perpetrators of sectarian crimes against minorities. On Easter Sunday in 2019, Sri Lankan nationals with ties to ISIL attacked three Christian churches and three hotels in suicide bombings, resulting in 269 deaths and over 500 injured. In November 2019, after Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected President and then appointed former President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his older brother, as Prime Minister, sporadic, sectarian persecution against Christians escalated and has continued to the present. President Rajapaksa resigned in July 2022 in response to mass demonstrations. In 2021, the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) reported 77 hostile sectarian actions against Christians, which ranged from intimidation to physical violence. In comparison, NCEASL reported 50 such actions in 2020. In March 2022, a mob of around 600 people, including 60 Buddhist monks, broke into a Christian Sunday worship service and attempted to close it down, threatening the pastor with death and seriously injuring one worshiper.

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, but 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 spaces.

Sri Lanka’s parliament has debated 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 building churches through legal and bureaucratic hurdles, physically assaulted, injured, and killed in hundreds of documented incidents occurring with particular frequency since the end of the twentieth century.

Christians in Sri Lanka have reduced the visibility and assertiveness of their evangelism, and many have shifted their energies towards social service projects. To overcome legal and bureaucratic hurdles preventing their assembly and construction of worship spaces, congregations increasingly meet in homes, build churches surreptitiously, or secure permission for construction by designating the structures as “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. After the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings, Christian leaders vigorously criticized both the government’s clumsy and heavy-handed investigative response and its failure to prevent the attacks despite intelligence from Indian authorities. In July 2021, Malcolm Ranjith, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, sent a 20-page letter to President Rajapaksa decrying the government’s failure to deliver justice to victims of the attacks and promising that the Catholic community would lobby for justice through demonstrations if its demands were not met. Subsequently, in August 2021 Archbishop Ranjith publicly called on the nation’s Catholics to raise black flags in protest on the two-year anniversary of the attacks. During the months-long popular demonstrations that ultimately forced President Rajapaksa to resign and to flee Sri Lanka in July 2022, Christians promoted interreligious unity in support of their protests. In May 2022, for example, Catholic nuns joined Muslims to prepare food and festivities for Buddhists celebrating the religious festival Vesak (Buddha Day). 


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. It was updated by Joseph London at the University of Notre Dame in August 2022.