Churches in Sri Lanka experiencing intimidation and violence

A Sri Lankan boy looks on as he awaits customers to sell decorative lanterns on the eve of Buddhist religious festival Wesak or Buddha Poornima in Colombo, Sri Lanka,AP

A campaign of violence and intimidation is being waged by Buddhists against Christians in Sri Lanka, Release International has warned.

The organisation says religious intolerance has been increasing for a decade and that in the past year, churches have been forced to close down and Christians prevented from holding prayer meetings or Bible studies in their homes.

There has been a wave of anti-Christian violence, with murder and arson among the 450-plus documented acts of violence against believers in recent years.

Release warns of a marked increase in the number of churches being demolished or set on fire, as well as attacks on individuals, death threats and forced displacement since 2012.

In many cases, Buddhist monks are leading the protests against churches, which are being increasingly cornered by attempts to restrict where worship can be held and the construction of new places of worship.

Release sources have reported at least 10 attempts by Buddhists to close places of worship.  In one instance in February, 11 Buddhists led a 250-strong mob in an attack on Holy Family Church, in Asgiriya, Kandy District. 

They stormed the pastor's premises and demanded an immediate halt to worship services.  The pastor and his wife were also assaulted and accused of being traitors, and local villagers were warned that they would face similar treatment if they tolerated Christian worship in the village. 

There are also ongoing efforts to pass anti-conversion legislation.

Release Chief Executive Paul Robinson said there was a growing climate of hostility and religious hatred towards Sri Lanka's Christian minority.

Some Christian families have told Release workers that they "live in constant fear" and that their children are experiencing discrimination and being taunted in school for their faith. 

"Our partners have logged successive attacks and threats against churches in the first few months of this year," said Mr Robinson. "Sadly, it is often Buddhist monks and Buddhist organisations that are trying to force the churches to close."