Palm Sunday violence against Anuradhapura Methodist Church | Sunday Observer

Palm Sunday violence against Anuradhapura Methodist Church

Good Friday street vigil for religious freedom, held in Colpetty
Good Friday street vigil for religious freedom, held in Colpetty

The small Methodist Prayer Centre in ​​Kundichchaankulama, Anuradhapura held Good Friday services this week under police protection.

The 15 year old religious centre has been in the eye of the storm since Palm Sunday, (the beginning of ‘Holy Week’ for followers of the Christian faith), that’s when mobs hurled stones and firecrackers at the building, following the arrival of Bishop Asiri Perera, President of Sri Lanka’s Methodist Church.

Typically, the local police showed tremendous reluctance to act against the assailants. It took a meeting between Bishop Perera, Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe and IGP Pujith Jayasundera to get police protection for the church - in case the mob decided to stage an encore during the Good Friday church service.

On Friday (19) afternoon, a silent vigil was held for religious freedom in Sri Lanka outside the Kollupitiya Methodist Church, after a week of tension in Anuradhapura, (and what religious groups call a subtle campaign of intimidation of religious minorities) since the beginning of the year.

On Palm Sunday, (which coincided with the Sinhala and Tamil New Year’s day, this year), Bishop Perera travelled to Anuradhapura on a surprise visit, without even telling his fellow priests and preachers that he would be visiting the little church in Kundichchaankulama. The church also doubles as a community service centre for ‘differently abled people’ of the village.

Bishop Perera told the Sunday Observer that he knew something was amiss moment his car arrived at the compound. “They screamed, oyaath inna ekata bahinna kiyanna (ask the fellow in the car to get down). When I got out of the car, I wished them all a happy new year. They replied by asking me what my business was in the place,” Bishop Perera recalled.

The crowd, mostly comprising young people, had asked him to produce a licence for conducting religious activities in the church. The Bishop replied that he did not require one to conduct religious activities in the church. Once Bishop Perera entered the building, the crowd began pelting stones and firecrackers at the church. “The old people were frightened, but we were determined to continue the service that day,” Bishop Perera said in an interview with the Sunday Observer last week.

When the service ended, Bishop Perera said he called the local Headquarters Inspector (HQI) who had promised to send a police team to the church immediately. But, although located only 1.5 km away, the police failed to show up for over half an hour. In the meantime, the mob had locked the gates to the church from outside, trapping devotees and the priests, within the building.

“We were basically hostages,” said Bishop Perera, recalling the incidents vividly. “We realised the situation was getting dangerous, so I called the DIG of the area,” he said.

Within 10 minutes, 25 policemen arrived at the church and restored order. The crowd was controlled by the police and the Bishop and priests managed to get people out of the premises safely. “I was the last to leave,” said the Bishop.

Tragically for priests at the small church, this was not the first time they had been attacked.A similar disturbance happened at the church on March 31.On that day too,

villagers shouted at devotees attending services and other events at the church, and stones were pelted at the church during worship. “A mob then came inside the prayer house,” Bishop Perera explained, “they were led by Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna man Nalin Siriwardane. He came and sat and watched inside the centre, as the mobs shouted and threatened us.

When the priest in charge contacted the Bishop, he immediately advised the religious leaders to lodge a police complaint. He also advised the priests to abandon religious activities temporarily.

“We had no loudspeakers. Just an amplifier and a buffer. But I told them to stop using that too,” the Bishop explained, saying he was worried about the safety of devotees and his priests after the attack.

When local police intervened, they treated the assailants with kid gloves, the Methodist leader told the Sunday Observer.

“They summoned both parties. The villages came in numbers and took the upper hand. Instead of recording a complaint by the party making the complaint, namely, the church, police listened to the attackers who were accusing us,” Bishop Perera said. “In the end, the HQI told us to continue our activities and install CCTV cameras on the premises. He also assured us that the police could be summoned during any emergency. But that did not happen on April 14,” he said regretfully.

No arrests were made in relation to the March 31 attack. Naturally, the mob felt emboldened and struck again two weeks later.

On Thursday, Prime Minister Wickremesinghe met with the Bishop and the IGP. The Bishop had raised the question of police inaction in the face of this onslaught on religious freedom. The Premier asked IGP Jayasundera, what action had been taken against the attackers, and called for a report on the incident.

“I wonder if the police act only for a segment of Society, and don’t believe it must protect everyone equally. Each time a church comes under attack, we hear about how the church was barely able to make a complaint to the police. Victims go seeking protection, and return feeling utterly insecure. I am so disappointed with some of the police,” the Bishop said.

Several attempts were made to contact Police Spokesperson SP, Ruwan Gunasekara and the DIG North Central Province, but they could not be reached for comment.

The head of the Methodist Church also asserted that Buddhist monks had not been involved in this campaign of intimidation against the church. “Anuradhapura is a sacred city and it was a place where not only Buddhists but people of other faiths lived peacefully for centuries. The official Cross I wear is also called the Anuradhapura Cross. It symbolises the religious harmony of the country,” he said.

The escalation of ethno-religious tensions in the country began with the heavy State patronage afforded to groups like the Bodu Bala Sena in the 2011-2014 period, culminating in the Aluthgama communal violence that laid siege to the Muslim township of Dharga. The attacks subsided for a few years, but the central town of Digana became another flashpoint in March last year, weeks after the SLPP swept the Local government elections in February. Police investigations found that a few SLPP local government members had been instrumental in instigating the vicious attacks targeting the Muslim community. Several of them were arrested by the Terrorism Investigation Division (TID). Over 200 arrests were made in connection with the violence in Digana, but with no prosecutions to date. In fact, the alleged protagonist of the violence, Leader of the Mahason Balakaya, Amith Weerasinghe was released on bail (after several months in remand custody) late last year.

With the attack on the church in Anuradhapura, once again the SLPP has found itself at the centre of the storm, and siding with the assailants. Six people involved in the violence have been noticed to appear in court on May 21.

SLPP leaders including Gotabaya Rajapaksa have denied involvement in the attack on the Methodist Church. The former Defence Secretary in fact called Bishop Asiri Perera to offer his support and assistance, to de-escalate tensions. (See box for details) “We categorically deny Podujana Peramuna involvement in this situation,” tweeted the spokesman for the ex-Defence Secretary, Milinda Rajapaksha.

Joining hundreds of thousands of people in the world, Sri Lankans expressed their shock and regret at the fire that broke out in the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last week. But much closer to home- just a few hundred miles away in Anuradhapura - a little church is fighting the fires of religious bigotry, with a State apparatus unwilling or unable to act. This tragedy, goes largely unnoticed.

pix by- Chaminda Niroshana and Siripala Halwala 


Mobs can’t take the law into their own hands: Javed Yusuf

There were ways to deal with a problem involving a place of religious worship, (even when complainants were convinced that they were victims of something wrong), via a complaint to the police, said Attorney at Law and former member of the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka, Javed Yusuf.

“They cannot take the law into their own hands. So this is to be totally condemned and even constitutionally, every citizen in the country has a right to practice his or her religion. That is the duty of the State. Police and other authorities must take very stringent actions,” Yusuf said.

According to the ICCPR, Act, hate speech is a criminal offence. But the Act has to be used wisely and it must be done at policy level by government deciding how they are going to use it.

Because, if the act is misused without adequate precautions, even innocent people get locked up.The Bail conditions applicable, are also stringent in these cases, he explained.


Nalin Siriwardana -the implicated Pohottuwa Municipal Councillor, speaks out

Anuradhapura is a planned city. In other words, there are dedicated residential areas in the city. This prayer centre had been there earlier without any problem, as it was not disturbing the neighbourhood. Initially, it had been a centre for treating disabled people. But eventually, they turned it into a prayer house where they function with much noise. No one in the vicinity are connected to, or followers of this centre. So as the gazetted Councillor for the area, people reported to me about this issue. They had handed over a petition to the municipal council earlier. . So I went to this prayer house accompanying a few villagers on March 31 this year. A priest welcomed us and invited me into the prayer house. While we were in there some of the villagers and worshipers started arguing. While it started going to a high tension level, I left the place asking villagers to vacate the place too, as I realised that I alone could not control these people (villagers).

However, later I got to know about this incident, where the priest claims that villagers attacked the place with firecrackers and stones. I was not even aware of that. I came to know about it at the police station last Wednesday.

I later had a meeting with our Mayor and other related officers.The priests failed to submit any documents to prove that this is a registered religious place of worship. We came to the conclusion that we would inform the engineers and AG’s office, and request them to conduct an investigation into this matter before taking any further action. It is also surprising to me that another issue had arisen after that meeting - there had been another incident on April 14.

The Bishop at the Charge room of police OIC, kept on slamming me saying , “Are you the Pohottu Councillor? We will look into you. I spoke to Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the Prime Minister too”. I replied that ‘as this is an issue of the people’, we will take steps legally. Thereupon their attorney described to me the freedom of religion as provided for by the Constitution. I replied to him that it is true, but no one can practice their religion while perturbing others. In fact, that is my main point in relation to this problem.


Gota steps in

When Methodist Church devotees, upset by reports that their Bishop had been held hostage in the Anuradhapura church by a mob -led by Pohottuwa politicians -they moved to contact various persons in order to bring the situation under control, said Methodist Bishop Asiri Perera.

Church members had contacted former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and both his brothers, Basil and Gotabaya, to explain the situation to them.

On April 16, two days after the incident, the former Defence Secretary, (who is nursing future presidential hopes), called Bishop Perera. “He told me ‘Bishop I heard that your church in Anuradhapura was attacked and I am very sad to hear about it. I am not at all happy about these sorts of incidents. Can you tell me what happened?’ recalled Bishop Perera.

The former Defence Secretary had told the Bishop that he will come and see him personally. “I told him my doors are always open, and that I was unhappy that one of the Pohottuwa people was behind this attack,” the Bishop said.

The same day, GotabayaRajapaksa sent one of his “close” associates, the Bishop identified as “Galagedara” to meet the head of the Methodist Church.

On Wednesday (17) GotabayaRajapaksa called Bishop Perera again. At the time, the Bishop had been at the Anuradhapura police station. ‘Bishop I’m checking on this. I don’t want this to go on like this. We should iron this out quickly. Because it’s not a nice thing’, -Bishop Perera said the former Defence Secretary had told him during the second phone call. However, the pair have yet to meet face to face, following the incident.


40 incidents against churches in 2019

Meanwhile according to minormatters.org, (a website dedicated to reporting issues faced by the minority communities in Sri Lanka), had reported that 40 incidents have occurred related to Christian churches and worship centres in the country during January to April 14 this year.

Damaging church properties, forcibly stopping religious activities, attempting to assault pastors, threatening priests, attempts to intimidate Christians, disrupting worship services, are some of the commonly reported incidents.

However, during the last year alone, 86 incidents have been reported against the Christian believers. It is significant to see the intervention of Police into these incidents in most of these cases. Another significant observation is that the mainstream Christianity chapters such as Roman Catholics and Dutch Reformists are not victims of these attacks whereas Methodists and Evangelic Christianity chapters, have most often been the targets.

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