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Home > fundamentalism / shrinking secular space > Now, dividing the Sinhalese on religious lines in Sri Lanka

Now, dividing the Sinhalese on religious lines in Sri Lanka

by Sonali Samarasinghe

Thursday 11 September 2008, by siawi

(Published earlier in: The Sunday Leader August 24, 2008)

The mob seeking entry to the AOG church premises and (inset) Gotabaya Rajapakse, Mahinda Samarasinghe, Rajiva Wijesingha and Robert Blake

The attacks on churches and the breach of the fundamental freedom of religion as mobs continue to harass and threaten Christian worship has greatly concerned the diplomatic community.

Last week US Ambassador Robert Blake was to take the matter up both with the Minister for Disaster Management and Human Rights Mahinda Samarasinghe and Secretary General of the Peace Secretariat Rajiva Wijesinha.

Certainly the government was worried. Defence Secretary Gotabaya Rajapakse had told a UNP dissident government minister such attacks would cause ripples in the international community. Basil Rajapakse the more moderate of the Rajapakses had given a patient hearing to the victims and promised action.

But with the diplomatic community kept abreast of the details of all the attacks the anti Christian sentiment was to cause far more than a few ripples as predicted by Gotabaya.


In fact even as the August 3 morning attack on the Kalutara church was in full force US Ambassador Robert Blake and visiting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher were meeting with a prominent representative of the Christian community.

No sooner than word of the attack trickled through on crackling telephone wires to this representative, Boucher himself was immediately made aware of the details. It was one of the reasons Blake would later take up the matter so urgently with government officials as well.

In fact it was the negative impact such attacks would have with the international community reflected so forcefully by diplomats speaking about these matters to ministers and also to Wijesinha that prompted the Secretary to the Human Rights Ministry and Peace Secretariat Chief to send a lengthy fax to the Leader newspaper on Wednesday morning.

Certainly much more than the principle it was negative international opinion that was to inform the government’s concern.

Be that as it may the Kalutara Assembly of God Church continues to remain the flash point as the matter was taken up in court last week. The circumstances surrounding the initial attack late July and subsequent developments have already been made known to the Attorney General C.R De Silva. As this newspaper reported last week senior lawyers for the church, Denzil Gunaratne PC and Asoka Weerasuriya had made representations to the AG on the matter.

Dim view

And it was even as the Attorney General himself was taking a dim view of the attacks having told officials around him it was unacceptable for churches to be attacked this way and it was a matter to be taken very seriously that Rajiva Wijesinha felt it necessary to write to this newspaper a lengthy missive on the article published last week, Sunday 17.

Certainly it is a sensitive subject and one hopes that government officials can keep the matter above the pettiness of racism and religious extremism and on a plane which will not only promote reconciliation but also a change in attitude.

This newspaper has received a large amount of correspondence on this subject both for and against and it is not practical for this newspaper to publish all this correspondence. It is in this context that we are unable to publish Rajiva Wijesinha’s entire lengthy reply on the subject since we had already spoken to and published the comments of all the relevant parties to the incidents at the time of writing last week.

However we give pause here to publish a paragraph from Wijesinha’s letter as it refers to action supposedly taken. Referring to this columnist he says, “The issues she raises are important, and she is right to claim that what seems increasing frequency (sic) requires concerted government action, to ensure the rule of law. Unfortunately she seems not to be aware that such action has been taken.”

’Acted promptly’

“With regard to the incident at Kalutara for instance, which was the basis of the article, the police had acted promptly to prevent a breach of the peace. At the last of the meetings held last week, it was agreed that no more protests would be held until a meeting scheduled for Monday August 18 at which senior police officials and secretaries to two ministries, as well as local officials including the disaster management coordinator met the concerned parties. Unfortunately this agreement was breached, but the police presented a comprehensive report as to what had occurred on Sunday, August 17 which indicated that judicial action would be appropriate. The matter has now been placed before the courts, which have ordered the production before them of those alleged responsible.”

A careful reading of last week’s article would show that this newspaper did say that Basil Rajapakse had been asked to intervene in the matter, that meetings had been held, that the police had been involved and had in fact attempted to hold the mob back but was unable to do so.

Wijesinha would realise that even this newspaper would be unable to publish on August 17 details of a meeting that took place on August 18. He states as per the para quoted above that a meeting was held and suggests that ’this agreement was breached.’ Unfortunately he seems not to be aware that this so called meeting of concerned parties in fact lacked one concerned party of vital importance - the victim AOG church representatives themselves.

Mob attack

He is correct in noting that something did occur on Sunday, August 17 (though fighting shy of elaborating what exactly took place) which indicated that judicial action would be appropriate. In fact despite the assurances given by both politicians, the government agent’s office and the police even as readers and no doubt Rajiva Wijesinha was reading The Sunday Leader article, a mob entered the church. Police were unable to prevent them from breaking into the church premises on August 17 and stopping church activity. The Head Pastor of the Church Stanley Royston and his family remained indoors as his wife’s car was stoned and its side mirrors smashed.

Mobs defaced the church building with cow dung and destroyed sections of a children’s club behind the main church. They also damaged the church gate and pastor Royston’s house gate. The police had not been able to quell the mob completely and had advised the Pastor to remain indoors while they tried to control the marauders.

Christian worshippers in the church and Pastor Royston and his family have been living in constant fear of their lives and their general security has been under threat. The AOG church representatives on being asked to be present at the GA’s office on August 18 for a meeting declined the invitation on the basis that such a meeting would be useless given the upsetting events of Sunday, August 17.

Pastor Royston was to ask the Assistant Government Agent if he could assure his security if he were to attend the meeting but understandably given the enormity of this problem and the outside forces that drive the enmity, he was allegedly to have replied that he could not undertake such a responsibility.

Declined to sign

It is also correct that on August 21 the six monks allegedly responsible for the events of August 17 in the Kalutara Magistrate’s Court were produced in court before the additional magistrate. The monks were enlarged on surety bail but they declined to sign. Court sources allege the monks were unwilling to sign.

Such a refusal would normally result in persons being remanded. If the monks were remanded it would cause anger and perhaps precipitate a national crisis. Sources in Kalutara also said had the monks been remanded following a refusal to sign it could have been used to whip up more anti Christian sentiment. But temple sources denied this vehemently.

However such an eventuality was averted as later the monks agreed to personal bail. Another crowd had attempted to make the incident a politically charged affair by surrounding the courts and chanting pirith alleged sources. As the monks arrived at the village temple later on Thursday evening at about 7.30-8 pm temple bells have peeled and fire crackers were set off as a celebration these sources claimed.

Meanwhile the OIC of the Kalutara police who had taken up his post only last Thursday was to inform Pastor Royston of the AOG church that he too should present himself in court on August 26 when the case is called again. He was told to expect formal summons.

The AOG church it is learnt has retained the services of President’s Counsel Denzil Gunaratne and senior lawyer Asoka Weerasuriya to appear on their behalf on Tuesday, August 26.

And there the matter rests uneasily for the moment.

Unwarranted criticism

A few insular but unwarranted criticisms seem to have been made by Wijesinha against this columnist and this newspaper. And lest Wijesinha thinks they were purposely left out we quote again;

“The same has occurred with regard to the incident at Malabe described in a previous article by your correspondent. Contrary to your correspondent’s continuing suggestions that the authorities are biased against minorities in neither cases have the police recorded or produced evidence against the Christians involved.”

We draw Wijesinha’s attention to this columnist’s assertions in the two articles one published on July 13, the other on August 17. We have said that it was in fact a government official Attorney General C.R.De Silva’s intervention that the church was able to conduct its service on August 10 as the police had been vigilant and acted sternly despite a mob arriving in the church.

We have praised Mahinda Rajapakse’s brother Basil as a moderate voice who had given the church a patient hearing and promised action. We have mentioned ministerial sources in government who were concerned but unfortunately they do not wish to be named. In our earlier article we have particularly mentioned the impartiality of the Talahena police as they defended the church pastor in the Talangama Calvary Church incident on July 6 where a mob led by some Buddhist monks stormed the church and destroyed its premises. We have also made particular mention of positive police action in both articles.

We have however listed out in a separate box in the August 17 article several concerns the Christians have on a trend that seems to be taking over this country based on a document prepared by certain Christian organisations.

It is perhaps prudent for persons such as Wijesinha not to reduce this issue to one of mere police partiality or a matter confined to a few individuals. This country has nurtured monsters before. If not, Wijesinha would not have to sit as Secretary General of the Secretariat for Coordinating the Peace Process. There would be peace in this land.

Attack on freedom

The attack on churches must be looked at in the larger sense just as much as an attack on freedom of any religion or practice must be viewed in the same light. We are concerned with the liberty of the individual, the rights of a human being as enshrined in international law and in the constitution of this country.

Already we are fractured on ethnic lines. Myopic politicians with self serving agendas are now fracturing the Sinhala people on religious lines. While this may not be politically correct it shall be said so that the folly of those extremists like Champika Ranawaka and his ilk are exposed. The Sinhala Christians have always identified with the majority. They have always, as much as the next Sri Lankan put their country first. Now it seems, that just as the politicians of this country alienated the Burghers and the Tamils they are ready to alienate the Sinhala Christians.

These are exclusionary measures with the long term goal of making this country a mono ethnic, mono religious state. If the government, if individuals, if the media, if organisations, if temples, mosques and peace secretariats do not recognise this trend as the father of the monster that is now stalking this nation preparing her for a bloody engagement, then truly Sri Lanka is a lost land.

No talk from Ven Siri Suguna

Ven. Dodampahala Siri Suguna Thero of Pulinathalaramaya Kalutara when contacted by The Sunday Leader said that he was not prepared to speak to The Sunday Leader as the paper has written against the Buddhist monks.

“I am very sorry I would not talk to your paper as your paper had written against Buddhist monks in the region without talking to us,” Ven. Siri Suguna Thero said.

(Nonetheless please see articles published on July 10 and August 17 where all relevant parties referred to in the articles have been spoken to and or attempts made to speak to them) 

Meanwhile Government Agent Kalutara, S. Hapuaratchi could not be contacted as he was out of Kalutara.

Monks enlarged on personal bail - Police

Officer-in-Charge (OIC) Kalutara North Police, Ajith Kumara Pitigala told The Sunday Leader that since there was religious intolerance in Kalutara the regional politicians, the Kalutara GA and high ranking police officers had discussed as to what action they could take to prevent such incidents in future.

“Considering the situation they had decided to take legal action and had gone before courts. The court had issued summons to six Buddhist monks who were accused of religious intolerance.”On Thursday the court enlarged the six monks on surety bail which they refused to sign but later signed," OIC Pitigala said.

The case would be taken up once again on Tuesday, August 26 according to the OIC.

recieved via the South Asia Citizens Wire | Sept 5-6, 2008