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Ethnic Conflict and

Religious Harm

Ethnic Conflict and Religious Harm explores the relationships between Sri Lanka’s difficult postcolonial history of communal violence and civil war. The island’s ethno-nationalist and ideological conflicts had a significant impact on spaces of religious worship. Churches, temples, mosques and kovils have served as sanctuaries for support, spiritual respite, refuge, and safety for communities across the island during times of crisis and hardship. 

‘The Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict’ outlines obligations to respect and safeguard cultural property including places of religious significance, prohibiting directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship that constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples. However, such sites, as well as religious leaders and clergy in the north and east of Sri Lanka, were disproportionately afflicted by and targeted in acts of wartime violence perpetrated by state and non-state actors with no accountability. We also note how places of religious significance were widely subjected to acts of retaliation at the hands of warring parties, gravely affecting the communities victimized by conflict.   The Ethnic Conflict and Religious Harm space of the museum has been intended as a space for solemn reflection and memorialisation with respect to the communities directly impacted by many decades of state and anti-state violence. 

It is presently centred on several examples of religious harm which took place during the civil war years. These include the Aranthalawe Massacre (1987), the Kattankudy and Eravur Mosque attacks (1990), the Navaly Church Bombing (1995) and the shelling of the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu (1999), and constitutes an ongoing effort to expand shared learning and remembrance.  

We also note the significance of incidents including the Anuradhapura Massacre (1985), the expulsion of Muslims from the Northern Province, the bombing of the Temple of the Tooth in Kandy (1998), the Pesalai Church Attack (2006) as well as the 1560 Hindu Temples that were damaged during the war, with 240 sites being completely destroyed. We also honour the memory of Father Thiruchchelvam Nihal Jim Brown and Father Francis Joseph, notable Catholic community leaders committed to humanitarian service, who were disappeared in 2006 and 2009 respectively.

Through this museum space, we pay our respects to the lives lost in and affected by these atrocities as well as the reprisal violence that followed. Where possible, we have actively involved and included testimony from religious leaders and members of the affected communities, and incorporated elements from community documentation and memorial practices. 

CW/TW: Descriptions, depictions and discussions of war and communal violence, injury, atrocity, death, and discriminatory attitudes or actions.