Colombo, Oct 21 (IANS) — U.K. Abeyratne, attached to vernacular daily Divaina, was reportedly attacked and his camera smashed during a visit to cover a session of an independent evangelical church in Kadawatha, 12 km from Colombo.
This year, several branches of the evangelical church were attacked by groups that claimed the former had launched an aggressive campaign to convert Buddhists by exploiting their poverty.
“Nearly 30 churches have been attacked by mobs this year,” says Godfrey Yogarajah, general secretary of the NGO, National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL).
For its part, the church denies both charges of attacking the journalist and allegations of conversions levelled against it.
Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist community accounts for around 70 percent of the country’s total population, with Hindus comprising 15 percent and Catholics just 6.4 percent of the country’s population.
Several prominent Buddhist priests and organisations, including the country’s premier Buddhist group, the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress, have vehemently condemned the alleged unethical moves to convert Buddhists.
Declares one of the country’s leading Buddhist monks, Venerable Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera: “There’s a carefully planned strategy by several foreign NGOs operating here to convert Buddhists, especially those in rural areas.”
He claims that in a similar strategy used in India and Nepal, they approach poor villagers through social workers by running health clinics and pre-schools.
Adds the monk: “Even our Archbishop Oswald Gomis condemned this, saying these types of unethical conversions were a grave threat to religious harmony in the country.”
Sri Lanka’s Buddhists are not the only ones to feel threatened.
Over the last few months, Hindu Religious Affairs Minister T. Maheswaran has been campaigning strongly against what he calls a move by certain churches to lure destitute minority Hindus.
Earlier, a series of media reports had hinted that the Minister of Buddhist Religious Affairs W.J.M. Lokubandara planned to introduce an anti-conversion bill in Parliament.
But Lokubandara, who is also the minister of justice, denies this.
“The Supreme Court verdict given last August clearly states the country’s position on protection of Buddhism in this country,” he said.
“I am examining allegations against conversions, but do not think there is a need to introduce an anti-conversion bill.”
Article 9 of the Constitution holds that the state should give “foremost place” to Buddhism and that it is its duty to “protect and foster” Buddhism.
The NCEASL maintains that all conversions were voluntary, with no pressure from the church.
Adds Yogarajah: “It is true that a considerable number of Buddhists have joined us. They have done so because they must be getting a kind of spiritual solace lacking in their respective religions. Sheep go to where the grass is greener.”
The NCEASL feels that distorted information on their social activities, like their launch of pre-schools in villages and flood relief campaigns, have spurred anti-social elements to attack evangelical churches.
Says Venerable Sobhitha Thera: “Attacks on churches should be strongly condemned. Nobody should take the law into their hands, as this kind of reckless behaviour only makes things worse.”
Yogarajah says his organisation is prepared to give evidence before an inter-religious investigative team to testify its non-involvement in unethical conversions.
He emphasises that none of the leading Buddhist monks or organisations are involved in the attacks, either directly or indirectly.
Stresses Yogarajah: “Only a small group of extremists bent on destabilising the set-up by creating religious disharmony, are involved in the attacks.”
Remarks Evangelical activist and convert, Bandula Jayamanna: “I embraced Christianity in 1993 purely for personal reasons, nobody forced me to do it. There’s no major program for conversions.”
He says the conversions are masterminded by only a small group of people interested in wrecking the peace process – the same group that organises strikes to de-stabilise the political set up.
“They are not backed by any of the respected priests or organisations.”
Interior Minister and Minister of Catholic Religious Affairs John Amaratunga says he has instructed church authorities to immediately lodge a complaint at the neighbouring police station in the event of an attack.
© Copyright 2001-2003 IANS India Private Limited, New Delhi. Posted on Religioscope with permission.