Total population 23 million. Buddhists 70 per cent; Hindu 13 per cent, Muslim 10 per cent and Christian (6 per cent Roman Catholic and 1.3 per cent other Christian).
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020
Radical groups and a strong religious nationalism, centred on preserving a Sri Lankan Buddhist identity, have continued to be influential. The persecution of Christians by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists has been on the increase for many years.
FoRB has been challenged following Easter 2019, when Islamist suicide bombers from a little-known radical group attacked three churches (two Catholic and one Protestant) and three luxury hotels in Colombo, Negombo and the Eastern city of Batticaloa. It is estimated that over 350 people died.
Since the bombings, there has been a continuation of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka at the hands of ultra-nationalistic Sinhalese Buddhist groups. Sri Lankan Muslims have faced an upsurge in violations of their basic rights as well as assaults and other abuse. In particular, anti-Islamic sentiment, and suspicion of Muslims, has escalated to retaliatory violence. It was reported that in the days following the attacks, mobs of young men began door-to-door evictions of Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers residing in the Negombo area.
The Prevention of Terrorism Act which has been used to detain Tamils suspected of holding links to the LTTE, has since the Easter bombings been used to arbitrarily arrest and detain hundreds of Sri Lankan Muslims. Some had been arrested for little more than possessing the Quran or other Arabic literature. Sri Lankan officials and politicians are being called upon to stop endorsing, ignoring, or exploiting hate speech and mob violence that has been directed at Muslims by members of the Buddhist clergy and other powerful figures.
The religious nationalism that has arguably led leaders to act in this way has meant religious minority communities suffer. There is an atmosphere of impunity where a Buddhist national identity prevails, and other faith groups suffer at the hands of extremists.
While the reporting of violations against Hindus is less forthcoming, the community has also faced violations. This was highlighted in the acquittal of 12 members of Sri Lanka’s Special Taskforce Police and one policeman in July 2019 for the execution of five ethnic Tamil students (known as the ‘’Trinco Five’’) in January 2006.
The Easter church bombings of 2019 have somewhat paved the way for increased discrimination for religious minority communities. The challenges Sri Lanka has faced in trying to unify its diverse ethno-religious population have become more uncertain.
On 25 January 2021 UN human rights experts urged the Sri Lankan Government to end its policy of forced cremation of the COVID-19 deceased, saying it ran contrary to the beliefs of Muslims and other minorities in the country, and could foment existing prejudices, intolerance and violence. “The imposition of cremation as the only option for handling the bodies confirmed or suspected of COVID-19 amounts to a human rights violation. There has been no established medical or scientific evidence in Sri Lanka or other countries that burial of dead bodies leads to increased risk of spreading communicable diseases such as COVID-19,” they said.
FCDO Human Rights Report 2020
In March, the Government also announced a policy of mandating cremations for all COVID-19 deaths, despite World Health Organization guidelines that permitted burials. This particularly affected Muslim and some Christian communities, for whom burial is an essential rite. In December, the Supreme Court dismissed several petitions that challenged this policy. The outbreak of COVID-19 also led to an increase in anti-Muslim sentiment, fuelled by hate speech and disinformation suggesting that Muslims were ‘carriers’ of COVID-19 and were violating prevention measures. In June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, expressed concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression, noting an announcement made by the police in April to arrest those critical of the Government’s COVID-19 response.
In the UK Parliament, 2021
Stephen Kinnock 19 January
Ruth Jones 6 January;
APPG Commentary on the current state of Freedom of Religion or Belief 2019
Sri Lanka is a majority Buddhist nation, with 70.2% of the population adhering to the Buddhist faith. There are also significant Hindu (12.6%), Muslim (9.7%) and Christian (6.1% Roman Catholic and 1.3% other Christian) minorities in Sri Lanka.
In 2015, Maithripala Sirisena became President of the country. While it was hoped that the new government would begin to tackle the legacy of the country’s civil war, thereby helping to reconcile and protect ethnic and religious minorities, such hopes were premature. Instead, radical groups and strong nationalism, centred on preserving Sri Lankan Buddhism, have continued to be influential.
The persecution of Christians by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists has been on the increase for many years, particularly since 2009. Widespread incidents of discrimination, threats and violence against Christians were evident in the reporting period with Christian institutions and places of worship targeted. For instance, the ‘’Aadara Sevana’’ Methodist centre was subject to a mob attack on 14 April 2019. The mob issued death threats and threw stones and fire crackers, essentially holding the congregation hostage before they were rescued by the police. A fortnight earlier, the same centre had been attacked by another mob demanding that prayer services and worship should not be conducted.
While not able to be positioned within the wider trend of increasing Buddhist nationalist violence within Sri Lanka, nine suicide bombers, holding presumed allegiances to Daesh, killed more than 250 people and injured over 500 more in targeted attacks on three churches and three high-end hotels in April 2019. It has been reported that at least 176 children lost either one or both of their parents in the bombings.
In recent years, there has been a continuation of anti-Muslim violence in Sri Lanka at the hands of ultra-nationalistic Sinhalese Buddhist groups. In particular, anti-Islamic sentiment, and suspicion of Muslims, has escalated in the form of significant retaliatory violence in the weeks and months subsequent to the Easter Bombings discussed above. The Sri Lankan Muslim community has faced misplaced backlash after it became public that home-grown Islamic militants, with ties to Daesh, conducted the attacks.
Specifically, Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers have faced retaliatory persecution, with as many as 1,500 forced from their homes by violent mobs in the aftermath of the bombings. It was reported that in the days following the attacks, mobs of young men began door-to-door evictions of Muslim refugees and asylum-seekers residing in the Negombo area. The Prevention of Terrorism Act, which has been used to detain Tamils suspected of holding links to the LTTE, has, since the Easter bombings, been used to arbitrarily arrest and detain hundreds of Sri Lankan Muslims. Some have been arrested for little more than possessing the Quran or other Arabic literature.
Emergency regulations implemented in April have disproportionately affected Muslim women. The government implemented a ban on face coverings including the niqab and hijab, with women who disobey such regulations facing exclusion from public places, harassment, and even arrest in some instances. Women have faced significant persecution from suspicious employers and neighbours. More specifically, on 15 May 2019, a 17-year-old girl was arrested under the emergency regulations after she momentarily covered her face with a handkerchief when being overcome by nausea.
Additionally, mosques and Muslim-owned businesses have also become prime targets of communal violence. In May 2019, it was reported that a 45-year-old Muslim man in the Puttalam district had been killed by a mob armed with swords as he worked in his carpentry workshop.
More widely, in the North Western Province, dozens of Muslim-owned shops, homes and mosques have been torched or vandalised. The physical violence has been accompanied by extremist rhetoric. On 15 May 2019, one of Sri Lanka’s most senior Buddhist monks called for the stoning to death of Muslims, as well as propagating the myth that Muslim-owned restaurants were putting ‘’sterilization medicine’’ in their food in order to suppress the Sinhalese Buddhist birth-rate.
While reporting of violations against Hindus is less forthcoming, the community has also faced FoRB violations. This was highlighted in the acquittal of 12 members of Sri Lanka’s Special Taskforce Police and one policeman in July 2019 for the execution of five ethnic Tamil students (known as the ‘’Trinco Five’’) in January 2006.
FCO Human Rights Report 2019
On Easter Sunday in April, six bomb attacks targeted churches and hotels across Sri Lanka. The attacks marked the largest number of deaths from terrorism in a single day in Sri Lanka’s long history of conflict. Those who suffered losses during the Easter Sunday attacks were paid compensation. There were reports that, given the scale of the attacks, a large number of people were arrested for alleged involvement in extremism. Although most were released on bail, a number remained on remand. Sri Lanka has a history of using open-ended periods of detention, largely against minority groups.
The aftermath of the attacks saw several incidents of violence against the Muslim community, including riots in which one man was killed and several mosques, homes and businesses were damaged, as well as further reports of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees, and asylum seekers.
In May, the then President, Maithripala Sirisena, ordered the pardon of extremist monk Ven Galagodaaththe Gnanasara, the de facto leader of the extreme Buddhist Nationalist movement Bodu Bala Sena (Buddhist Power Force), despite him being found in contempt of court.
UK ministers raised the issue of minority rights with their Sri Lankan counterparts. The UK continued to support inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund (CSSF) programme, including working with local organisations to encourage dialogue and the monitoring of incidents of violence and intimidation against members of religious minorities.
In the UK Parliament, 2020
No questions asked.
US State Department International Religious Freedom report 2020