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Sri Lanka - Christianity

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 22.4 million (July 2017 estimate). The 2012 national census lists 70.2 percent of the population as Buddhist, 12.6 percent Hindu, 9.7 percent Muslim, and 7.4 percent Christian. Tamils, mainly Hindu with a significant Christian minority, constitute the majority in Northern Province and are the second largest group, after Muslims, in Eastern Province. Christians reside throughout the country but have a larger presence in the Eastern, Northern, Northwestern, and Western Provinces and a smaller presence in the Sabaragamuwa and Uva Provinces.

An estimated 82 percent of Christians are Roman Catholic. Other groups include Anglicans (Church of Ceylon), the Dutch Reformed Church, Methodists, Baptists, Assembly of God, Pentecostals, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Christian evangelicals, “free groups,” and house churches have grown in recent years, although there are no reliable estimates of their numbers, and membership remains relatively low compared to the larger Christian community.

According to Christian traditions, the Apostle Thomas was active in Sri Lanka as well as southern India during the first century AD. Small Christian communities existed on the coasts of Sri Lanka during the succeeding centuries, flourishing on the edges of the Indian Ocean trade routes as Islam did in later times.

Christianity made significant inroads only after the fifteenth century, as aggressive Portuguese missionary efforts led to many conversions, especially among the Karava and other low-country castes. When the Dutch took control of Sri Lanka, they encouraged their own missionaries of the Dutch Reformed Church. Under their patronage, 21 percent of the population in the low country was officially Christian by 1722. The British, in turn, allowed Anglican and other Protestant missionaries to proselytize.

The relative number of Christians in Sri Lanka has declined steadily since the end of colonial rule. In 1900 a reported 378,859 people, or 10.6 percent of the population, were officially Christians. Although in 1980, the number of Christians had increased to 1,283,600, the percentage of Christians in the total population had declined to approximately 8 percent, where it remained by 2010. This decline occurred primarily because the non-Christian population expanded at a faster rate. Emigration abroad, conversions of some Christians to Buddhism and fewer conversions to Christianity among Buddhists, Hindus, or Muslims also were reasons for the decline. In the 1980s, Christians still were concentrated heavily in the low country in the southwest. They comprised 30 percent of the population in Colombo.

By 2010 about 80 percent of the Christians were Roman Catholics. In the 1980s some 88 percent of the Christians were Roman Catholics who traced their religious heritage directly to the Portuguese. The Roman Catholic Church has a well-established organization that encompasses the entire island. In 1985 there were 9 dioceses comprising 313 parishes, 682 priests, and 15 bishops (including two archbishops and a cardinal).

The remainder of Christians were almost evenly split between the Anglican Church of Ceylon (with two dioceses) and other Protestant faiths. The Dutch Reformed Church, now the Presbytery of Ceylon, consisted mostly of Burghers, and its numbers were shrinking because of emigration. Other Christian communities--Congregationalists, Methodists, and Baptists--were small in number.

Since the 1970s, there has been a movement of all Protestant Churches to join together in a united Church of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese community, however, has strenuously opposed this movement.

Although freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) always intersects with other human rights issues, this is especially the case in Sri Lanka. FoRB is also affected by the wider climate of fear among the minority community and the restrictive climate in which civil society organisations operate. Nondenominational Christian churches, often referred to as “evangelical” or “free groups,” continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials who often sided with the religious majority in a given community. Nondenominational Christian churches continued to report physical attacks and harassment by police and local government officials. These churches asserted authorities often sided with the religious majority in a given community and demanded Christian groups stop worship activities or relocate their places of worship outside the local jurisdiction, ostensibly to maintain community peace. The government maintained the ministerial circular issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in 2008, which required registration of and permission for construction of places of worship. According to evangelical Christian groups, local authorities selectively applied the circular and used it as a pretext for abuses of religious minorities. The legal requirement of religious education for children resulted in cases in which students belonging to religious minorities were forced to study the dominant religion in a given region, such as Buddhism or Hinduism. Government officials at the local level engaged in systematic discrimination against religious minorities, especially Muslims and converts to nondenominational Christian groups. Local government officials and police reportedly responded minimally or not at all to numerous incidents of religiously motivated violence against Muslim and Christian minorities. There were some reports of government officials being complicit in physical attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship. In March 2014 the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) adopted a resolution on reconciliation, accountability and human rights in Sri Lanka, requesting the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to undertake a comprehensive investigation into alleged serious violations of human rights. The resolution noted that the HRC was ‘alarmed at the significant surge in attacks against members of religious minority groups in Sri Lanka, including Hindus, Muslims and Christians.’

A mob led by monks attacked the Calvary Free Church and Assembly of God Church in Hikkaduwa, damaging the premises and threatening worshippers on 12 January 2014. Video footage shows monks hurling stones, destroying pictures, and burning documents with the help of protesters at the sites.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL) documented 97 incidents of attacks on churches, intimidation and violence against pastors and their congregations, and obstruction of worship services during 2017.

On 29 April 2017, local sources reported two unknown assailants assaulted two Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ridigama, North Central Province. The victims were subsequently taken to the local police station. The police officer on the scene reportedly affirmed persons have the right to share their religious beliefs with others, but he asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses not to proselytize in the Ridigama area. Police also discouraged the Jehovah’s Witnesses from filing a complaint, stating any action by police would prompt the leader of the Ridigama Buddhist temple to call President Maithripala Sirisena and dismiss the officers.

In June 2017 human rights activist and lawyer Lakshan Dias fled to Singapore after stating on television there had been more than 190 attacks on evangelical Christian groups since the current government came to power. President Sirisena publicly refuted Dias’s statement, saying that he had spoken to the head of the Catholic Church in the country, Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, who disputed Dias’s claim and said, “I don’t know where those statistics came from.” Ranjith added there had been no attacks on Catholics under the current government. Following the president’s remarks, then Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, whom the government subsequently removed from office for reasons unrelated to this issue, publicly threatened Dias with disbarment and imprisonment. Dias received a police summons in response to a complaint lodged by three Buddhist monks and a fourth person who accused him of inciting racial and religious hatred. He responded with a statement to the police citing evidence of the attacks in question. As of year’s end, there were no additional reports that Dias had been summoned or questioned. He remained free, but the case remained open.

On 17 June 2017, civil society activists reported approximately 20 villagers, the local police OIC, five other police officers, and three Buddhist monks gathered at the premises of the Elim Prayer Centre in Galgamuwa, Kurunegala. The group threatened the local pastor because the monks stated he was converting the people of the village, and the OIC ordered the pastor to stop all religious activities and leave the village permanently. In a follow-up order on June 21, the Galgamuwa Police OIC demanded the pastor obtain approval from the central government’s Department of Christian Religious Affairs in order to continue with his religious worship activities in the district.

On 11 July 2017, villagers from Illangaithurai in the Eastern Province broke into the premises of the Jesus’ Touch Church while the pastor was conducting a prayer meeting. The villagers assaulted the pastor and dragged him outside the church. Police prevented an escalation of violence. On July 12, the pastor lodged a complaint regarding the incident, but the police officer in charge (OIC) showed him a letter from the divisional secretary of Trincomalee Town that accused his church of proselytizing and instructed police to take action against the pastor.

According to civil society groups, on 14 August 2017, officers of the Civil Security Department visited a Christian family and informed members they would need approval from the Galgamuwa divisional secretary to conduct prayer meetings in their home. The divisional secretary then told the pastor that because Galgamuwa was a Buddhist village, he would not grant approval. On August 21, the pastor presented a letter from the Department of Christian Religious Affairs explaining that registration was not required. Police reportedly accepted the letter but still compelled the family to sign a statement that they would not increase the number of attendees at their prayer meeting.

The Department of Christian Affairs launched a public awareness campaign to encourage nondenominational groups to register as religious organizations, but the government had not actually registered them because a political decision by the minister on the registration of nondenominational Christian groups was pending as of 31 December 2017. Instead, nondenominational Christian groups continued to incorporate as commercial trusts, legal societies, or NGOs to engage in financial transactions, open bank accounts, and hold property. Without formal government recognition via the registration process, however, nondenominational churches reported they could not sponsor “religious worker” visas for visiting clergy and faced restrictions on holding meetings or constructing new places of worship.

According to evangelical groups, nondenominational churches experienced two major difficulties in complying with local officials’ registration requirements. First, rural congregations often could not obtain deeds to land due to the degradation of hard copy Land Registry documentation and incomplete land surveys. Second, without the consent of the majority of the local community or the local Buddhist temple, local councils often opted not to approve the construction of new religious buildings. Church leaders reported they repeatedly appealed to local government officials and the ministry responsible for Christian religious affairs for assistance, with limited success.

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Page last modified: 25-04-2019 14:55:50 ZULU