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Sri Lanka - Religion

Most members of the majority Sinhala community are Theravada Buddhists. Most Tamils, who make up the largest ethnic minority, are Hindus. Since 1983 the government had battled the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a terrorist organization fighting for a separate state for the country's Tamil, and mainly Hindu, minority. The conflict formally ended in May 2009. Adherence to a specific set of religious beliefs did not play a significant role in the conflict, which was rooted in linguistic, ethnic, and political differences.

In 1990 the LTTE expelled tens of thousands of Muslim inhabitants, virtually the entire Muslim population in the area, from the northern part of the country, many from the town of Jaffna. Although most of these persons remained displaced and lived in or near welfare centers during the reporting period, some members of this community began to resettle in Jaffna. It was unclear how many would eventually return, given the long period of time which had elapsed since their original departure. Many younger members of this community felt few ties to the north and expressed reluctance to return there.

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom; however, in practice, the government enforced some restrictions. The constitution accords Buddhism the "foremost place" and commits the government to protecting it, but does not recognize it as the state religion.

The country has an area of 25,322 square miles and a population of 20.1 million. Approximately 70 percent of the population is Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian, and 7 percent Muslim. Christians tend to be concentrated in the west, Muslims populate the east, and the north is predominantly Hindu.

Almost all Muslims are Sunnis; there is a small minority of Shia, including members of the Bohra community. Almost 80 percent of Christians are Roman Catholics, with Anglican and other mainstream Protestant churches also present in cities. Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Methodists, Baptists, Dutch Reformed, Pentecostals, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), and members of the Assemblies of God are also present. Evangelical Christian groups have grown in recent years, although membership remains small.

The constitution and other laws and policies protect religious freedom; however, in practice, the government enforced some restrictions. The constitution states, "Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice." The constitution gives a citizen "the right either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, or teaching."

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has four departments that work specifically with Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian affairs. According to the legislation defining their mandates, each department should formulate and implement programs that inculcate religious values and promote a "virtuous society."

Beginning in the 1970s, as new Christian groups -- including evangelical groups -- began to emerge in the country, it became more common to register churches under the Companies Act. Over time evangelical churches have been accused of engaging in "unethical conversions." As a result the government has become reluctant to register new religious groups as companies. Evangelical groups reported that they found it increasingly difficult to register new churches or to reregister under the Companies Act. Registration under the Societies or Trust Ordinances limited these churches' ability to conduct certain financial transactions.

Religion was a mandatory subject in the public school curriculum. Parents may choose for their children to study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity. Students who belonged to other religious groups could pursue religious instruction outside the public school system. All schools follow the Department of Education curricula on the subject, which was compulsory for the General Certificate Education Ordinary/Level exams. International schools that followed the London Ordinary/Level syllabus may opt not to teach religious studies in schools.

Christians of all groups sometimes encountered harassment and physical attacks on property and places of worship by some local Buddhists who were opposed to conversion and believed the Christian groups threatened them. Some Christian groups occasionally complained that the government tacitly condoned harassment and violence aimed at them. Police generally provided protection for these groups at their request. In some cases police response was inadequate, and local police officials reportedly were reluctant to take legal action against individuals involved in the attacks.

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Page last modified: 12-01-2015 15:41:43 ZULU