Religious tensions flare in Sri Lanka

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Sri Lanka has been hit by fresh religious unrest between Buddhists and Muslims. In a recent incident in Dambulla, a group of Buddhists – including several orange-clad monks – stormed into a mosque claiming that the building was illegal. Fears are now mounting over a possible escalation of religious violence in the region.

Two weeks ago, a mob of around 2,000 people, led by a group of Buddhist monks, stormed into the mosque in central Dambulla. The previous night, petrol bombs had been hurled at the building which is close to the world famous Buddhist Rangiri Temple in Dambulla.

The riots that ensued made it impossible for the Muslims to attend Friday prayer.

Representatives from the Buddhist local clergy told media afterwards that the reason for the protest was the apparent illegal state of the Dambulla mosque. They have filed a protest with local authorities against the mosque, saying it was built on sacred Buddhist ground and urging its closure.

Long time coming
Sanjana Hattotuwa, a journalist from Sri Lanka, told RNW that the unrest was a long time coming: “According to the monks in Dambulla, it was the frustration of several years boiling over,” he says. “Many believe the violence was orchestrated and riding on a wave of what is seemingly a growing hate campaign against Muslims in Sri Lanka.”

Mr Hattotuwa points out that there are several Sri Lankan anti-Muslim groups active on Facebook, which attract several thousand followers.

While Buddhism remains Sri Lanka’s largest religion – with approximately 70 percent of the population calling themselves Buddhist – other religions are free to operate in the country, including Islam, which around 8 percent of the population adhere to.

Tensions between various religious groups in Sri Lanka are not new – there have been occasional outbreaks of violence against Christians since 2004 – but these tensions rarely ever erupt into large-scale violence or hatemongering. Attacks on mosques, like in Dambulla, are also rare.

Holy land
Buddhist claims that the mosque has been built on sacred ground that is part of the Rangiri Temple compound have angered Muslims in Sri Lanka, including cabinet members and MPs.

Deputy Minister of Women's Affairs A.L.M. Hizbullah, a Muslim, has said that the mosque is fifty years old. “I prayed at this mosque as early as 1985 and there have been no issues in the past. Only recently have there been problems when the number of people coming into the mosque on Fridays for Jummah prayers increased,” he said.

Muslim MP Hasen Ali says the instigators of the violence are extremists. “The government can’t come out with any stale explanation,” he told local media. “These incidents will further polarize the ethnic population in this country.”

The government’s official response to the violent protests has been muted so far. A press release from the Government Information Department said it was a “minor misunderstanding”, stressing that Sri Lanka is a “multi-religious, multi-ethnic society” and that Sri Lankans have a “long standing tradition of being respectful to each other”.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka’s President Rajapakse has promised to look into the matter and to “resolve it amicably”.

Sanjana Hattotuwa has started a blog, Not in Our Name, where people can sign an online petition against this violence. “This behaviour is not remotely associated with the philosophy of the Dhamma, the teachings of the Buddha,” he says. “We renounce a fringe lunacy and we resist extremism. We oppose mob violence and bigotry as ways to resolve disputes.”