Arsonists Set Fire to Church in Sri Lanka

Unidentified arsonists attacked a Roman Catholic Church in the town of Katuwana, west of the capital Colombo, police said Sunday.

In the-predawn attack the men set fire to everything inside the St Michael's church, destroying furniture and religious statues, according to the police.

"An unarmed watcher had been chased away by the attackers who set fire to everything that was inside the single-storied building," a police officer at the scene told reporters.

According to Agence France-Presse, the officer was unable to say how the attackers carried out the arson unnoticed by the police station located just 200 yards (600 feet) away. A forensic investigation was underway.

The area surrounding the church at Katuwana, Homagama, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) west of Colombo, was cordoned off by armed police who did not allow press photographers to get into the premises before forensic experts could complete their work, AFP reported.

Catholic priest Chaminda Wanigasena told AFP there was no resident clergy at the church, which was managed by a larger church in the neighbourhood.

He said that although authorities deployed guards outside after the church had been attacked by arsonists earlier this year, the armed protection had been recently withdrawn.

No-one has yet claimed responsibility or been arrested for the earlier attack.

"We believe the same group that attacked the church earlier was responsible for today's attack as well," the priest said. "All the statues and furniture inside the church have been destroyed."

According to reports, attacks against churches escalated earlier this year following the death of the Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thera--a controversial Buddhist monk who campaigned against “unethical” conversions to Christianity by “foreign-funded fundamentalist sects” alleged to be offering economic incentives to poor Sri Lankans to convert.

In the wake of the campaign against unethical conversions, sources report that at least 30 Christian churches have been attacked by mobs since November 2003.

Tensions between the Buddhists and Christians of Sri Lanka heightened even more after Soma Thera’s unexpected death on Dec. 12, 2003 while visiting Russia. The death triggered an onslaught of accusations against Christian evangelists, even after several autopsies concluded that the monk had died of a heart attack.  Sources say thousands flocked to his elaborate state funeral ceremony on Dec. 24 in Colombo, where some monks declared “holy war” against fundamentalist Christians.

Currently, Sri Lanka's constitution grants the foremost place to Buddhism, which is practiced by nearly 70 percent of the island's 18.66 million people. Hindus make up about 15 percent and Muslims about 7.5 percent.

Christians make up 7.5 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, where more than 60,000 people have died in a 30-year armed campaign by separatist Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu.