Churches Face Harassment, Closure in Sri Lanka

June 27, 2013

A Christian Aid-assisted ministry raises rubber trees to help finance its evangelistic work in Sri Lanka.

Facing opposition from their Buddhist and Hindu neighbors, Sri Lankan Christians fear their religious rights will erode as extremist groups attempt to shut down churches in the island nation.

According to International Christian Concern´s website, over 30 churches have been “violently attacked” in 2013 alone. Last year the organization reported 52 incidents of Christian persecution.

Accounts of harassment against Christians have increased with the resurgence of nationalism and a backlash against anything considered a “foreign religion.” Sinhalese Buddhists, victorious in 2009 after a 20-year civil war with Tamil separatists in the north, view Western influences as a threat to their traditional culture.

As minorities in the predominantly Buddhist society, both Christians and Muslims suffer persecution. However, evangelical churches seem particularly targeted.

“The violence has escalated in the sense that it is more visible now, but the incidents are localized,” said Sarla Mahara, the South Asia Director for Christian Aid Mission. “After the war ended, Christians began preaching more openly and now more churches are springing up.”

A Christian Aid ministry partner in Sri Lanka emailed Mahara this week with news of isolated attacks against Protestant congregations. The ministry has been instrumental in training missionaries and planting churches throughout the country.

Six Christians were injured and their Methodist church was damaged June 16 when a worship service allegedly grew too loud and angered a group of Hindus holding a religious celebration of their own.

“During the Sunday service the church used a sound system. At the same time Hindus were celebrating thiruvela in a nearby temple. The Hindus asked the church people to stop the sound system, but they didn´t turn it off. Therefore, the Hindu people assaulted six church people and attacked the church,” he wrote.

The ministry partner expressed concerns that the group´s aggression against the Christians was politically motivated and asked for prayer.

Numerous reports indicate local officials are ordering the closure of churches because they have not been “authorized” by the government. While the registration of religious organizations is not mandatory, pressure is mounting to require all such groups to come under the watchful eye of the state.

In his email the ministry leader requested assistance from Christian Aid for a congregation in southern Sri Lanka that rents a house for its worship services. The owner intends to sell the house, creating a hardship since the congregation is registered to worship at that location only. They are not permitted to simply move into another rented facility. However, the congregation is entitled by law to purchase the building and could continue holding services there if they raise the needed funds.

The ministry leader reported an attack on a Pentecostal church in May that left the pastor and some of the members injured. The incident marks the second time that church has been targeted.

Christians gather for prayer in a small sanctuary.

Also in May pastors in the Hampantota District feared the worst when they were called together for a meeting with government officials, police, and Buddhist monks. The authorities planned to close all churches in the district except those belonging to established, mainline congregations.

While churches in Hampantota were permitted to remain open, as a result of the meeting those fellowships must now register with the local governing body to obtain legal status. The ruling adds concern that more districts will impose similar regulations or limit the spread of house churches.

Mahara sees a silver lining in the hostilities. Instead of undermining the evangelistic efforts of churches, those instigating acts of violence are unintentionally creating greater unity among the body of Christ.

“Persecution really brings out a stronger church. With the war over, people can travel freely again and there´s much more potential for the gospel to go across the country,” said Mahara.

“These believers are very committed. They know their calling,” she continued. “Their work may be slowed, they may be hindered, they may not have a church building right away, but if they´re not allowed to build in one place, they will build somewhere else. The gospel is taking root. ”

Christian Aid currently assists five ministries and a seminary in Sri Lanka. Collectively, these ministries have planted 45 churches. The average cost to construct a church building is around $10,000.

Support for evangelistic training is also needed. Pastors, church workers, and missionaries are invited to attend weeklong programs offered in selected locations around the country. The cost of $150 per attendee includes course materials, transportation, meals, and accommodations.

Over 70 percent of Sri Lanka´s 21 million people are Buddhist, according to the 2011 census. Hindus make up another 12 percent; Muslims, 10 percent; and Christians, 7.5 percent. Most of the Christian population is concentrated in the cities of Colombo and Jaffna and on the northwest coast.