The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has expressed concern over the growing religious intolerance in Sri Lanka, where there has been ongoing violence against religious minorities for the past two years.
In a statement released Wednesday by the U.S. government agency, USCIRF reported that in the past few years, there has been an increasing number of attacks targeting churches, ministers, and other religious minorities, reportedly carried out or inspired by members of nationalist Buddhist groups.
Particularly in the rural areas, there are reports that Christian churches have been desecrated or burned to the ground and individuals have been physically assaulted by mobs, the agency reported. In the past two years, over 140 churches have been forced to close down due to attack, intimidation, and harassment.
Though the violence had abated last year, reports indicate that since May of this year, acts of violence against churches and individuals have again escalated.
"Though the Sri Lankan government has condemned the attacks in the past, the Commission is concerned that the renewed violence is a sign that the authorities are not taking sufficient steps to halt the burgeoning climate of religious intolerance in Sri Lanka," said Michael Cromartie, USCIRF's newly-elected Chair.
While some reports indicate that local police sometimes respond quickly to the attacks and when necessary provide extra security for churches, others suggest that these actions are pro forma and not effective.
"Of particular concern are reports, Cromartie continued, including from the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief Asma Jahangir, that the relevant authorities in Sri Lanka have made little effort to pursue the perpetrators of these attacks and hold them to account.
The USCIRF also noted that there have been reports, particularly in the period immediately after the tsunami event, of some groups and individuals engaging in efforts to encourage people to convert reportedly amounting to "unethical" practices that are said to have served to increase tensions among religious communities in Sri Lanka. In response to these reports, a group of Christian organizations in Sri Lanka issued guidelines to curb the practices that have created friction.
In addition, several minority religious groups and aid organizations have publicly decried "unethical" conversions and called for the creation of an inter-religious council to be given power by an act of Parliament to investigate all allegations of unethical conversions. The Catholic Bishops' Conference in Sri Lanka, for example, issued a statement in April 2005 stating that "[u]nethical conversions, whether it be the sphere of Politics or Religion, are blatantly wrong and offensive. And, there have been growing concerns in our country on this matter. This phenomenon has to be studied as regards to those who resort to them as well as the authenticity and veracity of the allegations."
In preliminary findings based on her visit to and investigation in Sri Lanka, UN Special Rapporteur Asma Jahangir, addressed "allegations that faith based organizations that have brought humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka for the victims of Tsunami, have adopted certain methods of exploiting the vulnerability of the population."
Although Jahangir was not "able to confirm these allegations by precise and individual cases," she concluded that "a sufficient number of allegations are confirmed by a number of sources."
Noting that these cases "raise anxiety," the UN Special Rapporteur pointed out these are "regrettable practices but do not constitute a criminal offence or a clear violation as long as such conversions are not carried out by force, pressure, or other coercive methods."
Jahangir further concluded that "a large number of humanitarian workers and organizations have scrupulously observed" applicable humanitarian principles and have "generously donated and tirelessly worked for the victims of Tsunami."