The museum’s thematic areas have been informed by the mapping of 70 events and incidents related to the freedom of religion and belief in Sri Lanka. This chronology begins in 1815 with the signing of the Kandyan Convention which consolidated the island as a unitary state under the British colonial powers and established a formal association between that state and religion. This catalogue briefly charts 200 years of freedom of religion and belief in Sri Lanka, pointing to key themes, actors, artefacts and is intended as a quick guide and resource to the contents of the museum.
200 Years of
Freedom of Religious Belief
in Sri Lanka
Catalogue of Events
Date: 2 March 1815
Event: Signing of the Kandyan Convention
Following the capture of the last King of Kandy, Sri Wickrama Rajasinha, the British formally recognised the freedom of religion of Buddhists for the first time, by signing an agreement known as the Kandyan Convention with members of the aristocracy in Kandy. Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention guaranteed ‘The religion of Boodhoo [Buddhism], professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces, is declared inviolable, and its rites, ministers, and places of worship are to be maintained and protected.’
Date: 1813 onwards
[Further context: Christian missionaries first arrived in Jaffna during Portuguese colonial rule, and continued to operate under Dutch colonial rule.]
Event: Christian Missionaries in Jaffna
During the period of British rule in Sri Lanka, the missionary movement within the Jaffna peninsula was distinct to the rest of the island as it was influenced by both American and British missionaries. The first American missionary to Jaffna, Rev. Samuel Newell, arrived in Galle by accident in 1813, en route to Mauritius. Missionaries in Jaffna regularly attempted to undermine Saivite belief by challenging their ‘ritual practice and texts’. These Hindu communities were openly suspicious of and antagonistic towards the missionaries. Yet the missionaries persisted in evangelizing through education. Christian missionaries largely rejected the caste system in Jaffna on the grounds that it was ‘not of divine origin’. Missionaries were responsible for the transfer of technology in Jaffna and elsewhere in Sri Lanka, in terms of the printing press, photography, architecture and the sewing machine. Parallel to the work of the schools, the missionaries contributed to Tamil culture and society in different ways. Rev. Miron Winslow published the first comprehensive Tamil-English Dictionary. Dr. Samuel Green, founder of the Manipay Mission hospital, translated around 4,500 pages of key English medical texts into Tamil.
Event: Campaign led by missionaries to dissociate the state from Buddhism
The administration of the island as one territorial unit from 1833 onwards, following the implementation of the Colebrooke-Cameron Reforms, provided the opportunity for all religions to be given equal status by the colonial state. However, in 1837, foreign missionaries in Ceylon began a campaign to disassociate the state from Buddhism, as some missionaries believed that it was state support for Buddhism that prevented more of the local population from embracing Christianity. The missionaries often adopted a confrontational attitude in their attempts to prove the religious superiority of their beliefs. Meanwhile, Buddhists, including both monks and laymen, pointed out that despite such aggressive attempts at proselytization, the local Buddhist population did not respond with violence.
Historians have connected the state’s short-lived attempt to de-link state and religion (in contravention of the Kandyan Convention) as contributing to the Matale Rebellion in 1848. Once the Rebellion had been brutally suppressed, the state decided to revise its policy on Buddhism, recognising the role of its policy in the underlying causes of the Rebellion.
Date: 1842 – 1845
Event: Institutionalisation of Christian leadership in Ceylon and Establishment of Buddhist Monastic Colleges
The first Roman Catholic Bishop of Ceylon was appointed in 1842. In 1845, the first Anglican Bishop of Ceylon, James Chapman, was appointed and the Diocese of Colombo was established. The Parama Dhamma Cetiya Pirivena was founded at Ratmalana by Valane Siddharttha in 1841. Students of this pirivena included Ven. Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Thero, who later established the Vidyodaya Pirivena and Ven. Ratmalane Dharmaloka Thero, who established the Vidyalankara Pirivena. The establishment of such Buddhist monastic colleges reflected a broader, ongoing process of ‘modernisation’ of Buddhism in Ceylon.
Event: Birth and Spread of the Religious Press
The Dutch introduced the first printing press to Sri Lanka in 1737. Almost a century later, British and American missionary organisations introduced religious printing presses to Ceylon between 1815 and 1840, and with it came the first newspapers in English. Sinhala and Tamil newspapers representing Catholics, Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims emerged during the middle of the nineteenth century and proliferated into the early twentieth century. Below is an example of the diversity of religious publications available in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century
Event: Founding of the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism
Migettuwatte Gunananda founded the Society for the Propagation of Buddhism in Kotahena in 1862. This society was founded as a reflection of the Christian organisation called the ‘Society for the Propagation of Christianity’. This society contributed to the propagation of Buddhism or awareness of Buddhist activities in Ceylon at a time when publications on Christianity were being produced at a prolific rate by missionaries.
Date/s: 1842 onwards
Event: Hindu revival and Arumuga Navalar
On 30 September 1842, over 200 prominent Hindus met in a temple in Jaffna to counter the attack of the missionaries on their religion and way of life. Arumugam Pillai, better known as Arumuga Navalar, was one of those who prompted and led this meeting. Recognizing that the missionaries’ key modes of conversion were education and the press, the Hindu leaders decided to begin their own school and purchase their own press. This meeting sparked the work of Arumuga Navalar in empowering and educating local Hindus.
Event: Founding of the Paramata Kantana Cuyamata Tapana Sangam
The Paramata Kantana Cuyamata Tapana Sangam was founded in 1864, and became the first organization for the promotion of Saivaism and Tamil Literature. It was founded by Sankara Pandithar. Together with Arumuga Navalar who was in India at the time, the organization undertook the task of promoting Saivism and opposing the Christian missionaries.
Event: Panadura Debate
The Panadura Debate is widely regarded as a key event in the ongoing Buddhist revival in Ceylon. There had been a series of debates predating the Panadura one, including Buddhist-Christian debates at Baddegama and Varagoda in 1865, at Udanvita in 1866, and at Gampola in 1871. The Panadura Debate took place in 1873 between Christian missionaries and Buddhist monks. The Christian debaters were Reverend David de Silva and F.S. Sirimanne, a catechist of the Church Missionary Society. The lead Buddhist debater was the monk, Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera, who was in turn supported by Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Thera and Weligama Sumangala Thera. Thousands of people attended these debates, and shouted ‘sadhu sadhu’ in support of the Buddhist monks. From this point onwards, Buddhist monks openly and increasingly spoke out against missionary activity in Ceylon.
Date: 1873 - 1875
Event: Founding of the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas
The establishment of the Vidyodaya and Vidyalankara Pirivenas was the outcome of a much broader historical process of Buddhist revival in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The revival began in the Kandyan region with the establishment of the Siyam Nikaya in 1753, a Buddhist fraternity that could confer upasampada (higher ordination) on typically Goyigama monks. By the early nineteenth century, the impact of the religious revival occurring in the Kandyan region could be felt in the Southern and Western parts of the country.
The Vidyodaya Pirivena was founded in Maligakanda by Hikkaduve Sri Sumangala Thera. The Vidyalankara Pirivena was founded by Ratmalane Sri Dhammaloka Thera in Peliyagoda. These were the two leading centres of Buddhist learning, and they remain two of the largest Buddhist pirivenas in the country. The two pirivenas were granted university status in 1959. In 1978, Vidyodaya Pirivena became the University of Sri Jayewardenepura and the Vidyalankara Pirivena became the University of Kelaniya.
Event: Establishment of the Theosophical Society of Ceylon
In 1880, the foreign Theosophists Colonel Henry Steele Olcott and Madame Helena Blavatsky set up two Ceylon branches of the Theosophical Society: a Buddhist branch and a non-Buddhist branch. The Buddhist branch became known as the Buddhist Theosophical Society (BTS) and worked to organise and promote Buddhism in Ceylon. One of the aims of the Theosophists, that converged with the aims of local Buddhist reformers, included the establishment of Buddhist schools, and Buddhist ‘Sunday Schools’.
Event: Campaign to declare Vesak Day an official holiday
It is an early example of multi-ethnic support for the advancement of Buddhist religious practices. Vesak is one of the most important dates in the Buddhist calendar, as it commemorates the birth, enlightenment and death of the Buddha. This campaign began in 1881. Henry S. Olcott, with the support of the Tamil Member in the Legislative Council – Ponnambalam Ramanathan – approached Governor Gordon and proposed that Vesak day be declared a public holiday. Gordon ‘eagerly accepted’ this proposal, in part due to the recognition of the state’s special obligation towards Buddhism, as contained in the Kandyan Convention.
[FURTHER CONTEXT Just over a hundred years later, another Tamil politician and Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, proposed that the United Nations commemorate Vesak ‘as a day of Buddhist observance, in recognition of Buddhism’s contribution to human spirituality’. He made this proposal in 1999, at the 54th session of the United Nations’ General Assembly (UNGA). The UNGA unanimously adopted Resolution 54/115. The Late Mr. Kadirgamar is thus responsible for Vesak Day being internationally recognized as a UN Observation Day. This is an example of coexistence across religious lines.]
Event: Founding of the Saiva Paripalana Sabhai
Following the death of Navalar, in the context of a renewed commitment to Saivaism across the North and the East of Sri Lanka, a group of prominent citizens and scholars founded an organization called the Saiva Paripalana Sabhai in 1888. Their main aim was “the preservation and promotion of the ancient and traditional values of Saiviasm, Tamil language and culture and the promotion of the solidarity of the Tamil people in Sri Lanka”. Branches of the organization were soon set up in the East as well as in Colombo. They aspired to fulfil Navalar’s ideals of establishing a native English school (since the local English schools were all administered by missionaries), and to set up a newspaper on Saivaism and the organization’s work.
Event: The Formation of the Maha Bodhi Society
Anagarika Dharmapala is a key figure in the Buddhist revivalist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in 1864 to a wealthy Buddhist family, David Hewavitarne adopted the title ‘Anagarika’ (meaning ‘homeless one’ in Pali) ‘Dharmapala’ (protector of the Dhamma). Initially educated in Christian missionary schools, Dharmapala was well-versed in the Bible and used his knowledge to counter the hypocrisies he identified in the lessons of the missionaries.
Dharmapala became a member of the Buddhist Theosophical Society and was mentored for some time by Olcott and Blavatsky. However, with time, Dharmapala disagreed with the Theosophists and distanced himself from the Society. In 1891, he founded the Maha Bodhi Society in Ceylon, with the avowed aim of restoring Buddhist sites in India to Buddhism. One of the key sites that Dharmapala hoped to restore to Buddhism was Bodh Gaya, in India, that was under the control of a Hindu authority. Dharmapala had to embark on numerous fundraising missions in this respect, through the Maha Bodhi Society. Through his efforts, a chapter of the Maha Bodhi Society was established in Calcutta, and a Journal of the Maha Bodhi Society was launched.
Date/s: 1891 – 1897
Event: The Kalutara Bo Tree Incidents
The construction of a shrine besides a Bo tree in the Kalutara Fort caused tensions between the authorities and the Buddhists in the area. Two Bo trees, considered sacred to Buddhists, had already been brought down on the orders of the Assistant Government Agent in Kalutara in spite of claims made in petitions by the Kalutara Buddhist Union that the space around the Bo trees as sacred to Buddhism. The order to move the shrine away from the Fort precipitated fears that the Bo tree, too, would be felled. This was considered a destruction of Buddhist sacred symbols by the Buddhists in the Kalutara district. On 26 November 1896, a large crowd of Buddhists gathered in Kalutara to protect the tree. The police were called in, and the next day, the crowd was dispersed. Although the shrine was removed, the Bo tree was allowed to remain.
Event: Anagarika Dharmapala at World’s Parliament of Religions
Buddhist was defined as one of the ‘world religions’. In this context, Anagarika Dharmapala was invited to deliver a speech at the World’s Parliament of Religions conference held in Chicago in 1893, representing ‘Southern Buddhism’ (as opposed to ‘Northern Buddhism’, such as in Japan). The parliament had been organised by (Presbyterian) Christians who aimed to ‘prove’ the superiority of Christian doctrine by bringing together representatives of other religions. At the parliament, Dharmapala spoke alongside venerable figures from across the world, including Swami Vivekananda. Contrary to the motives of the parliament’s organisers, Dharmapala and Vivekananda effectively wielded their knowledge of Christian scriptures to their advantage, while using ‘the occasion to present universalizing messages in parallel forms’.
Event: The Fez Incident
The Muslim advocate M.C. Abdul Cader was prevented by the Supreme Court from entering court wearing the fez cap, which was ‘at the time considered to be a symbol of Muslim identity’. To protest this prohibition, the Fez Committee organised a mass meeting of Muslims on 31 December 1905 in the grounds of the Maradana Mosque in Colombo.
Around 30,000 people were estimated to have attended the meeting, the majority of the crowd comprising the Ceylon Moors. The Muslims claimed that the denial of wearing the fez was an obstruction of their religious freedom to manifest religious belief through attire.
The Muslims eventually succeeded in their protest against this British colonial policy, as in 1906, the Supreme Court revised its decision and allowed Muslims to wear the fez cap in court once again.
Event: Celebrating a National Day
The first ‘National Day’ was celebrated in April 1914. The event represented a nascent Ceylonese national unity that aimed to transcend religious (and ethnic) boundaries. This idea of Ceylonese national unity was connected to the loosely defined ‘Ceylonese’ identity held by many English-educated people, who owned property and/or were professionals.
This National Day celebration was initially suggested by Sinhalese Christians, but was intended to include not just Sinhalese Buddhists and Christians but all ‘sections of the nation’. The celebration of the first National Day was only held in a handful of districts. The following year, in 1915, National Day celebrations were held islandwide.
Event: Anagarika Dharmapala’s writings on other ethnic and religious groups in Sri Lanka
Anagarika Dharmapala was one of Sri Lanka’s early twentieth century Sinhala nationalist leaders. Although he frequently left Sri Lanka to travel abroad, he continued to write prolifically on political and religious issues in Sri Lanka. These writings included his views on ethnic and religious groups in Ceylon. Throughout his lifetime, his views on these ethnic or religious groups remained dynamic, shifting according to changing contexts in Ceylon. For example, antipathy towards Christian missionaries for their proselytisation was frequently reflected in his writing. However, Dharmapala’s ‘Message to the Young Men of Ceylon’, written in 1922, portrays a more inclusive approach to Sinhalese Christians in Ceylon (who were considered to be corrupted by Christianity but still part of the ‘Sinhala nation’). Historians have suggested that Dharmapala’s views on the Muslims (specifically the Indian/Coast Moors) may have been determined by ‘family concerns’ as his family ‘had a strong trading-merchant basis’ and often found themselves competing with Muslim traders. Similarly, Dharmapala’s writings on Tamils, like his writings on Christians and Muslims, must be contextualised. Dharmapala’s use of the term ‘Tamil’ in certain contexts are likely to have referred to Indian Tamil labourers, brought to Ceylon by the British colonial state, as opposed to Ceylon Tamils.
Event: Establishment of All Ceylon Buddhist Congress
The All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress was founded in 1918, and held its inaugural meeting in 1919. It was headed by Dr. C.A. Hewarvitarne, and the inaugural meeting was chaired by Sir Don Baron Jayathilaka in December 1919. The Congress’ initial objective was to ‘systematize and regularize the work of the young men’s Buddhist associations formed throughout the country’.
Event: The establishment of the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU)
In 1924, a council of Muslim theologians called the ‘All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama’ (ACJU) was established. At the time, the Muslim minority community felt the need for a body of Islamic scholars, and attempted to replicate similar councils formed in India and South Africa in 1919 and 1923 respectively.
Over many decades, this ‘Jamiyyathul Ulama’ (union of scholars) has grown in scope and mandate. The ACJU, officially incorporated in 2000 under the All Ceylon Jemmiyathul Ulama (incorporation) Act, No. 51 of 2000, comprises scholars, professionals, academics, and many others. Their work includes community service initiatives such as promoting education, providing relief and welfare, and empowering the youth; organising training and furthering Islamic education; and dispelling misinformation about the community, with an overall view to maintaining unity within the community and among Muslims and other Sri Lankans. They also deliver rulings and guidance on socio-religious issues faced by the people; they are currently considered the only authorised body to do so.
Event: The Establishment of the Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home
The Moors’ Islamic Cultural Home (MICH) was established in 1944 in Colombo. The MICH received state recognition as it was incorporated by a Bill moved in the State Council by Sir Razik Fareed and seconded by Hon. George E. de Silva. This is an example of coexistence across religious lines. It was incorporated by an Act of Parliament, No. 44, on 19 October 1946. The objective of the MICH was to ‘promote educational, social and cultural activities’ and specifically, to ‘deal with religious matters, education, economic and the social aspects of the Moor community’.
Date/s: September 1947
Event: Creation of the Jaffna Diocese of the Church of South India
The idea of a united Church of South India (CSI) was conceived in 1919, at a Conference in Tranquebar (now Taragambadi). The Anglican Church pushed for the implementation of the Ceylon Scheme for church union, which, similar to the North Indian Scheme, required incoming ministers of other denominations to undergo supplemental ordination at the time of unification. The Church of South India (CSI) came to fruition in September 1947 following Indian independence. It was formed through a merger of the “General council of Church of India, Pakistan, Burma and Ceylon, General Assembly of South India United Church (LMS and Presbyterian traditions) and South India Provincial Synod of Methodist Church”. Jaffna was one of the founding dioceses of the new church.
The CSI continues to play an important role in the North of Sri Lanka, including the administration of mission schools such as Jaffna College and Uduvil Girls College.
Date/s: 1950s onwards
Event: Theological contestations between Muslim groups
In the 1950s, contestation along religious/theological lines emerged within the Muslim community. Scholars trace the roots of a movement that sought to ‘purify’ Islam in Sri Lanka to this period – and argue that the process was led by two groups – the Jamatee Islami and the Thablighi Jamaat. These groups clashed with other Muslim groups along ideological lines.
A more radical group, the Thawheed Jamaath group, emerged as a leading Muslim group with strong links to Saudi Arabia. This group typically attracted young Muslims who had returned from employment or education in the Middle East.] Thawheed Jamaath eventually split into various sub-groups, such as Dharus Salaf, All Ceylon Thawheed Jamaat, Sri Lanka Thawheed Jamaat, and the National Thawheed Jamaat.
Date/s: 4 March 1957
Event: Establishment of the Buddha Sasana Commission of Sri Lanka
The establishment of the Buddha Sasana Commission can be considered a key event in the institutionalisation of political Buddhism in post-Independence Sri Lanka. On 4 March 1957, the recently appointed Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike established the first Buddha Sasana Commission in Sri Lanka. He ‘mandated that it investigate the demands made by the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress (which was founded in 1919) for special Buddhist legal privileges’. The membership of the Commission comprised ‘ten monks and five laymen’. The Commission was ‘charged to investigate the feasibility of [a Buddha Sasana Council]…to deal with such matters as monastic courts, Buddhist temporalities, and other matters pertaining to the regulation of the Sangha.’
Event: Establishment of NGO Commission
President Ranasinghe Premadasa in December 1990 called for the establishment of a Commission to investigate the activities of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Sri Lanka. This mandate essentially enabled the state to access details of the names, salaries and addresses of staff members, copies of their research, financial data, as well as information regarding the family members of the NGO’s employees. This affected the freedom of some religious groups to operate with security in Sri Lanka due to allegations of unethical conversions and ‘Western influence’. The Commission continued to operate until December 1993.
Event: Report of the Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission
The Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission was appointed by President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga in 2001. The purpose of the Commission was to inquire into grievances of the Buddhist community. The Commission claimed that religious conflicts had emerged in the country due to alleged unethical conversions. The report contained several key findings and recommendations, including the calling for the enactment of a law to prohibit religious conversions ‘using unethical and provocative methods’.
Colonial and Post-colonial Inter-Religious Tensions and Violence
In the late colonial, and post-colonial periods, Sri Lanka has witnessed numerous episodes of inter-religious tensions that have boiled over into violence. The victims of such tensions and violence have included individuals, communities, and places of worship. Perpetrators have involved individuals, mobs, and even state actors such as members of law enforcement. Meanwhile, the failure of law enforcement actors to respond efficiently and effectively to simmering tensions and the outbreak of violence often allowed localised issues to spread across towns, districts and provinces.
This section does not feature events of inter-religious violence in the post-civil war period. Please see Post-war Religious Tensions and Violence
Date/s: February – March 1883
Event: Kotahena Riots
The Kotahena temple, at which Migetuwatte Gunananda Thera was the incumbent monk, had recently renovated an image house. To celebrate this renovation, ‘a series of pinkamas or meritorious deeds’ were organised in the area. The temple was located near the St. Lucia’s Cathedral in Kotahena. On Easter Sunday, a crowd of two thousand Roman Catholics, ‘conspicuous by the white crosses painted on their foreheads’, attacked a Buddhist procession going past St Lucia’s Cathedral. Reasons for the attack included the fact that the Catholics considered the space around the cathedral as ‘their’ space, and that the procession would disturb the worship services taking place inside the Cathedral. A Buddhist man and a Catholic man died, while thirty were injured in the riots. The following day, Catholic property was attacked, including the burning of a church in Dehiwela. The riots were, however, soon brought to an end following intervention from the colonial state.
Date/s: February 1900
Event: Wattala Riots
On 25 February 1900, the Wattala Riots took place between a group of Roman Catholics and Buddhists as a perahera went past a Roman Catholic church. Christian and Buddhist newspapers blame members of the other religious community for provoking the outbreak of the violence. Injuries were sustained by both sides before the police intervened and made a number of arrests.
Date/s: June 1903
Event: Anti-colonial riots and attack on a Catholic Church in Anuradhapura
Tensions between Buddhists in Anuradhapura and the colonial state over colonial encroachment came to a head in the early twentieth century. In June 1903, a Catholic Church was set on fire by Buddhists in Anuradhapura. Targeting Catholics was not, however, the sole driver of the violence. Instead, the Church was just one target in a wider anti-colonial campaign regarding the ‘sacred space’ of Anuradhapura. The man who led this campaign was Walisinghe Harischandra, who had established a branch of the Maha Bodhi Society in Anuradhapura. According to Harischandra, 9 June 1903 ‘was a great day to the Buddhists of Ceylon…[when] about 20,000 pilgrims from all parts of the country’ had gathered in the Sacred City. ‘At about 11A.M. a disturbance took place’. Harischandra cites a report in the Times of Ceylon, which explains the trigger events for the riots: ‘the alleged removal of ancient Buddhist pillars for mending roads. People were more or less in an excitable state and, unfortunately, Mudaliyar Amarasekera…accidentally rode over a woman. This set matters aflame, and the Roman Catholic Mission and the meat-stall – an abomination to the Buddhists – were the sufferers. The church of the former and the mission house and school room were wrecked and burnt.’
Event: Gampola Perahera Case
This event is closely connected with the outbreak of The 1915 Anti-Muslim Pogrom.
Between 1912 and 1915, tensions were rising between Buddhists and Muslims in Gampola. The Indian Moors (also known as Coast Moors) were vehemently opposed to the use of music in Buddhist processions when passing a mosque. In 1912, the British Government Agent rejected the appeal of the Basnayake Nilame of the Wallahagoda Devalaya for a license to use drums during their annual Esala perahera procession, which normally had to go past an Indian Moor mosque in Gampola. Angered at the state’s refusal to allow their religious rites, the Trustees of the Devalaya filed a case in the District Court on 23 July 1913 against the order prohibiting music. In June 1914, the Devalaya won their appeal, as District Court judge Paul E. Peiris (a Christian judge) found that the use of sound in their procession was a way of ‘showing particular honour’. This is an example of coexistence across religious lines. However, this district court verdict was appealed by the state with the support of the Indian Moors, and in February 1915, the Supreme Court overturned the District Court’s ruling.
Date/s: May – June 1915
Event: The 1915 Anti-Muslim Pogrom
In May 1915, Indian Moors at the Castle Hill Street mosque in Kandy objected to Buddhist processions going past their mosque (similar to the issues underlying the Gampola Perahera Case between 1912 and 1915). The Buddhists perceived this objection as intolerant of their religious practices.
The colonial state authorised the procession to go past the mosque after midnight, on the morning of 29 May 1915. However, the police officer on duty diverted the procession just before it was due to go past the Castle Hill Street mosque in Kandy. Consequently, Muslims gathered at the mosque jeered and hooted at the procession that was forced to divert. This provocation triggered a violent backlash from those Buddhists in the procession, who turned on the Muslims gathered at the mosque and attacked the premises. The Muslims who were initially attacked were the Indian Moors. However, as rioting spread from Kandy in the Central Province to four other provinces, Ceylon Moors also came under attack, as distinctions between the two groups of Moors were not maintained. The riots targeted Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship for approximately nine days and resulted in at least 25 deaths, 4 rapes, and left 189 people wounded. 17 mosques were burned and 4000 Muslim-owned shops were looted. The situation was eventually brought under control by the state through the implementation of martial law between June and August 1915. However, the government also committed grave atrocities against innocent Sinhalese including unlawful executions and imprisonment without charges during this period.
Date/s: January – February 1976
Event: Anti-Muslim riots in Puttalam
In January 1976, an altercation between a Muslim nattami (porter) and a Sinhalese bus conductor at the central bus-stand in Puttalam, led to a ‘general fracas’ with other Muslim nattamis. The staff at the bus depot, who were primarily Sinhalese, responded with a strike, demanding that the bus-stand be moved away from the Muslim-dominated town center. Further clashes occurred between the Sinhalese and Muslims in the following days. On 2 February, the police responded to an encounter between Muslims and a Sinhalese bus driver by deploying armed police to the Puttalam Grand Mosque, where, according to reports, Muslims had gathered to discuss the escalating tensions. There is no clear narrative on why the police opened gunfire as they approached the mosque. Eight people were reported to have died in the shooting at the mosque.
During this time, violence also took place in other parts of the Puttalam district. Reports available claim that over 225 houses belonging to Muslims, a mosque, 44 Muslims shops and businesses were destroyed in and around Puttalam. In addition to the deaths at the mosque, six Muslims died.
Date/s: July 1982
Event: Anti-Muslim Riots in Galle
On 26 July 1982, violence between Sinhalese and Muslims broke out in Galle and continued for six days. There are mixed reports on the exact trigger event and no consensus on what caused the violence. Interviews conducted by Vijay Nagaraj and Farzana Haniffa revealed different narratives such as: (i) an altercation occurred between a Sinhalese fruit vendor and his Muslim neighbour; (ii) a dispute occurred between a Muslim landlord and Sinhalese tenant; (iii) some simply understood the events as a clash between two rival groups; and (iv) a few other Muslims had compiled a document claiming that the violence was not a result of personal animosities, but rather a targeting of Muslims by armed Sinhalese.
Once the violence erupted, it spread from Galle town to surrounding suburban areas, resulted in two deaths and severe property damage, and had to be controlled through military intervention.
Date/s: April – May 2001
Event: Sinhala-Muslim Riots in Mawanella
Reports suggest that the riots started after a violent confrontation on the night of 30 April, between some Sinhalese youth and two Muslim workers. One of the youths allegedly slashed the face of one of the worker’s with a knife; this worker was later hospitalised. The lack of arrests the next day led to protests by Muslim youths at a bus stand. Shortly after, amidst the spread of rumours about organised action, groups of both Sinhalese and Muslims began to gather, until the stand-off erupted in attacks on property and people. Riots broke out in Mawanella and its surroundings, in the Kegalle district, on 2 May 2001, and unrest soon spread to other parts of the country. Muslim protests in the wake of the violence erupted in Colombo, Trincomalee, and Batticaloa, and clashes took place between Muslim protestors and the police in Colombo.
In the days following the outbreak of violence, some initial arrests were made. However, due to limited evidence, those arrested were later discharged. Police complicity in the riots, and specifically the role of the Mawanella Police came under scrutiny. On 10 May 2001, Leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Rauff Hakeem raised the issue of police complicity in the riots, and the role of the Mawanella Police in Parliament.
Event: Death of Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero
Ven. Gangodawila Soma Thero was a key figure in the revival of ‘Buddhist politics’ in the 1990s. Ven. Soma Thero died unexpectedly on 12 December 2003 during a visit to Russia, of a heart attack. His untimely death was greeted with suspicion by many, including by the Sihala Urumaya (a political party mainly comprising monks), and a Presidential Commission was appointed to inquire into the circumstances of his death. Suspicion was directed against Christians in Sri Lanka, as Ven. Soma Thero was known as a staunch Buddhist nationalist and a champion of anti-conversion. In light of these factors, a number of violent events targeting Christians and Tamils occurred.
Anti-Christian sentiment in Sri Lanka escalated to the point that the president, Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga, appealed for the media ‘ to act responsibly and help promote ethnic and religious harmony’. She further warned that ‘anyone who incites the Buddhist public to attack Christians and their places of worship would be dealt with firmly.’
Event: The expulsion of the Abdur Rauf group from Kattankudy
In the 1970s, a controversial ‘Sufi’ leader named Abdur Rauf (also referred to as Rauf Maulavi) established his own mosque and organisation called ‘All Ceylon Islamic Spiritual Movement’ in Kattankudy. In 1979, the All Ceylon Jamiyyathul Ulama (ACJU) issued a fatwa (ruling on Islamic law) declaring him an apostate. In December 2006, after the death of another Sufi leader, Abdul Payilvan, followers attempted to bury Payilvan at a mosque considered to be the leader’s established headquarters. This move triggered large-scale violence between the orthodox Muslims in the area and Payilvan’s followers - and the eventual expulsion of Rauf and his followers from Kattankudy. There were riots and a hartal for weeks. This episode is considered one of the most violent confrontations between the groups. Many Sufi supporters fled the town, including the Rauf group. Abdur Rauf later set up in Colombo with a strong group of supporters.
Ethinic Conflict and Religious Harm
From around 1983 to 2009, Sri Lanka was embroiled in a civil war, primarily between the Sri Lankan state and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). The conflict was distinctly drawn on ethno-geographic lines. However, in the course of the conflict both parties indirectly violated the Freedom of Religion or Belief.
Ethno-nationalist/ideological conflicts have had significant implications for the freedom of religion. Places of worship have served as places of support, refuge and spiritual respite for communities. Yet these same sites have been repeatedly and aggressively violated by state/non-state actors. During Sri Lanka’s civil war, no religious community escaped unscathed.
Religious leaders and clergy were targeted and attacked – sometimes for their vulnerability as in the case of the Aranthalawa massacre, and sometimes for their activism and resistance as in the cases of Fathers Brown and Francis.
Places of worship, which were significant sites of protection and sanctuary, were also attacked and destroyed, often when civilians had sought shelter from ongoing hostilities. International law specifies that places of cultural import, including places of worship, must be protected during conflict. More specifically, this means that unless it is clear that a place of worship is a military target – a strategic site of advantage to the opposing side, it cannot be attacked. In many of these events mentioned below, from Anuradhapura and Aranthalawa, Kattankudy and Navaly, the Temple of the Tooth to Naguleswaram, it is clear that they were places of refuge to civilians, and that the attacks were conducted out of deliberate spite, or out of disregard for the impact on civilian lives and the cultural importance of these places.
Attacks against religious sites, and not against worshippers themselves, still fall within the ambit of FoRB. Such religious sites are held sacred by the adherents of the respective religions or beliefs. Thus, an attack on religious sites indirectly infringes on FoRB and has been recognized as such by the United Nations.
The list below includes some, though not all, incidents of war-time violence that constituted attacks against religious freedom of Buddhists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims in Sri Lanka.
14 May 1985: Anuradhapura Massacre
On 14 May 1985, Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) cadres opened fire on civilians in Anuradhapura, including those at the sacred Sri Maha Bodhi shrine. This massacre in Anuradhapura took place ostensibly as a reprisal for an army massacre in Valvettithurai. This is one of many examples of cycles of violence between the state and the LTTE, where innocent civilians were murdered in each massacre.
2 June 1987: Aranthalawa Massacre
On 2 June 1987, the LTTE launched a deadly attack on monks in Aranthalawa, in Ampara. The monks, travelling in a bus from the Ampara Mahavapi temple, were headed on a pilgrimage to the Kelaniya Raja Maha Vihara. The memory of this massacre is preserved in a symbolic monument built in Aranthalawa in 2013.
3 – 12 August 1990: Kattankudy and Eravur Mosque Attacks
On 3 August 1990, the LTTE launched attacks on two mosques in Kattankudy, in the Batticaloa district. These were the Miran Mosque and the Meera Jumma Mosque. Just over a week later, the LTTE carried out another massacre of Muslims in Eravur.
October 1990: Expulsion of Muslims by LTTE from the Northern Province
Over 75,000 Muslims were expelled from across Jaffna, Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu and Killinochchi with around 48 hours of notice. Scholars suggest that around 12,700 Muslim families in the East were also expelled.
9 July 1995: Navaly Church bombing
On 9 July, a Sri Lanka military airstrike hit the Navaly Church and neighbouring buildings. Displaced civilians including children who had sought shelter in the church were killed and injured in the bombing.
25 January 1998: Bombing of the Dalada Maligawa
On 25 January 1998, the LTTE bombed the Dalada Maligawa. It was attacked at around 6a.m. in the morning when a truck, loaded with explosives, broke through a barricade and exploded.[ The explosion destroyed much of the main porch of the temple, but the Tooth relic was not damaged in the attack.
20 November 1999 – Shelling of Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu
On 20 November 1999, almost 3,000 refugees were sleeping in the Church compound, when the area was hit by artillery shells.
17 June 2006: Pesalai Church Attack
On 17 June, around 2000 to 3000 civilians sought shelter in the Church of Our Lady of Victories in Pesalai. Armed men in motorcycles shot at the church, and launched a grenade inside the church.
20 August 2006: Disappearance of Father Jim Brown near Kayts
Father Jim Brown was the Catholic priest at Allaipiddy, which came under frequent attack by the LTTE and the Sri Lankan military in 2006. On 20 August, Fr. Brown assisted in a Mass at Kayts, and then left to head to Allaippidy. He was travelling with a Mr. Weneslaus Vimalathas, who was a social worker. Both Fr. Brown and Mr. Vimalathas were never seen after this.
18 May 2009: Enforced Disappearance of Father Francis in Jaffna
Fr. Francis was a Catholic priest, and a former Rector of St Patrick's College, Jaffna. On 18 May 2009, over 100 LTTE cadres surrendered in the company of Fr. Francis, and were reportedly transported from the site in buses. A wife of one of the cadres noted, “My husband boarded the bus first, then many others, and finally Fr. Francis. Fr. Francis believed the army would respect the white robe. He seemed scared but believed he'd be OK. And people believed that if they went with him they'd be safe”. Fr Francis has not been heard of since that day.
Destruction of Hindu temples during and after the armed conflict
The armed conflict took a massive toll on Hindu temples in the North of Sri Lanka. The Tamil Centre for Human Rights notes that 1,560 temples were damaged or rendered useless, while 240 had been completely destroyed. These included smaller shrines, as well as historically and religiously significant temples such as the Naguleswaram Temple in Keerimalai, Jaffna. In October 1990, this temple was bombed several times, and suffered significant damage. Temples in High Security Zones, under the sole custody of the Sri Lankan military, were also repeatedly looted.
Legislating and Regulating Religion
1815: Kandyan Convention
Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention was intended to be a British promise to safeguard religious freedom in the former Kandyan Kingdom. Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention guaranteed ‘The religion of Boodhoo [Buddhism], professed by the chiefs and inhabitants of these provinces, is declared inviolable, and its rites, ministers, and places of worship are to be maintained and protected.’
1865: The Police Ordinance
The Police Ordinance provides for the establishment and regulation of a police force in Sri Lanka. Section 78 of this Ordinance also regulates public processions including those in the neighbourhood of places of worship during the time of public worship. Section 79(2) of the Police Ordinance provides that any person who in any public place or at any public meeting uses threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour which is intended to provoke a breach of the peace or whereby a breach of the peace is likely to be occasioned, shall be guilty of an offence under this section.
1883: The Penal Code
The Penal Code includes a range of offences pertaining to religion. For example:
Section 290: Injuring or defiling a place of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class
Section 290A: Acts in relation to places of worship with intent to insult the religion of any class
Section 291: Disturbing a religious assembly
Section 291A: Uttering words with deliberate intent to wound religious feelings
Section 291B: Deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class, by insulting its religion or religious beliefs
Section 292: With intent or knowledge commits trespass in any place of worship, burial places etc., or causes disturbance to persons assembled for funeral ceremonies
1895: Cemeteries and Burials Ordinance
The Cemeteries and Burials Ordinance consolidates the law relating to cemeteries and burial grounds. Section 11 of the Ordinance provides for the appropriation of the cemetery; according to the law, the proper authority may sell a portion of any cemetery for the special use of any religious denomination applying for the same. According to section 13, a clerk in holy orders may perform the services of his religion, at the request of the executor of the will of the deceased, or at the request of any other person having the charge of the body of any deceased person. Section 27 states that if the proper authority refuses to authorise the construction of a building (such as a chapel) for burial services or cremation within the general cemetery or refuses to sell a portion for special or exclusive use by a religious denomination, or charges an excessive amount for such sale, the religious denomination can make application to the relevant Minister who is then empowered to intervene.
1929: The codification of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA)
The Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act, No. 13 of 1951 (MMDA) is the law that presently governs marriage and divorce of all Muslims in the country. This includes those who convert to Islam, although Muslims who marry persons of a different ethnicity or religion can do so under Sri Lanka’s (General) Marriage Registration Ordinance (GMRO) of 1907.
The MMDA is a mix of Sharia law and Islamic legal practices, influenced by Roman-Dutch and English statutory and common law. Some groups have called for further reform to the law for more than 30 years, and the law has similarly undergone several amendments.
Currently, the Muslim Personal Law Reform Action Group (MPLRAG), comprising Muslim women’s rights advocates, lawyers, researchers, and writers, is a key group leading the demand for reforms. Their recommendations include raising the minimum age of marriage to 18; allowing women to be appointed as quazis, marriage registrars and assessors; and amending existing divorce procedures.
1939: Education Ordinance
The Education Ordinance stipulates better provision for education. Sections 34 and 35 of the Ordinance provide for the role of religion in schools and its managers. Section 34 protects the right of an applicant to be admitted to any assisted school regardless of the religion, nationality, race, caste, social status or language of such applicant or his parents. Section 35 stipulates that the pupil be provided instruction in the religion of the parents in a Government school, provided (i) instruction in a particular religion need not be given in a government school where there are less than 15 pupils whose parents are of that religion, and (ii) that the parent has not voluntarily submitted a written request to exempt the pupil from such attendance.
1947: The Soulbury Constitution
The Soulbury Constitution was framed between 1946 and 1947. Section 29(2) of the Soulbury Constitution provided limited protection for religious and other minorities including prohibiting Parliament from enacting legislation that will prohibit or restrict the free exercise of religion.
Minority communities argued that the clause provided insufficient protection to minority interests. For example, they argued that Section 29(2) assumed a pre-existing environment where rights were guaranteed, and hence only provided ‘negative liberties’, by prohibiting laws that would infringe on such rights. This was considered insufficient in a socio-political context in which religion and ethnicity were playing increasingly prominent roles in politics.
1961: Assisted Schools and Training Colleges (supplementary Provisions) Act, No. 8 of 1961
This Act declared the Director of Education ‘the manager of all assisted denominational and private schools.’ The Act had a disproportionate effect on the Christian missionary school system. Furthermore, schools run by the Buddhist Theosophical Society were also taken over by the government in 1961. Muslims, however, were allowed to have their own schools at state expense.
1972: Section 6 of the Constitution
In the first Republican Constitution in 1972, Buddhism was given the ‘foremost place’, and a bill of rights including the freedom of thought, conscience and religion was included.
Section 6 of the Constitution guaranteed: ‘The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster Buddhism while assuring to all religions the rights granted by section 18(1)(d).’
1978: Article 9 of the Constitution
This Constitution (which prevails today) replicated the provisions of section 6 of the 1972 Constitution. However, the wording was changed slightly, to broaden the protections offered to Buddhism in Sri Lanka. That is, Article 9 of the Constitution highlights the ‘protection and fostering of the “Buddha Sasana” as opposed the 1972 Constitution, which only referred to ‘Buddhism’.
The inclusion of Article 9 in the Constitution could be considered a milestone in the institutionalization of political Buddhism in Sri Lanka. Leftist political parties that were typically committed to secular principles offered their support to the faming of Article 9.
1979: The Prevention of Terrorism Act
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) was passed in 1979 as a temporary provision. However, the PTA is still in force today. Section 2(1)(h) of the PTA specifies that any person, by words either spoken or intended to be read or by signs or by visible representations or otherwise causes or intends to cause commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill‐will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups is guilty of an offence under the Act. Meanwhile, section 14(2)(ii) provides that no person shall print or publish in any newspaper any matter relating to incitement to violence, or which is likely to cause religious, racial or communal disharmony or feeling of ill‐will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups.
2004: Anti-Conversion Bill
The proposed Anti-Conversion Bill of May 2004 emerged following the release of the recommendations contained in the Report of the Buddha Sasana Presidential Commission. The Anti-Conversion Bill was proposed in the context of various organisations in Sri Lanka, including those made up of Buddhists, Hindus and Catholics criticising the issue of ‘unethical conversions’ by missionaries.
A Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist party, made up largely of monks, called the Jathika Hela Urumaya, submitted the Anti-Conversion Bill to Parliament, however, it was never enacted into law.
2007: The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Act No. 56 of 2007
Sri Lanka acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights on 11 June 1980. On 16 November 2007, Sri Lanka passed legislation incorporating some of the provisions of the Covenant into domestic law. The Act prohibits advocacy of ‘national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’.
2008: Circular calling for the registration of religious places of worship
In October 2008, the Ministry for Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs released a Circular on the Construction of New Places of Worship. The circular required any new place of worship to be authorised by the state. In the years following its release, the circular was used to restrict worship practices. The circular was distributed to local government bodies, and used widely to shut down various churches.
The legality of the 2008 circular has been contested. At the time the Circular was issued, there was no specific law that permitted the relevant Ministry to issue circulars to restrict an individual’s right to worship under Article 14(1)(e). Moreover, Article 15(7) of the Constitution states that rights guaranteed under Article 14 of the Constitution can only be restricted by ‘law’, which ‘includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security’. The 2008 circular is not a ‘regulation’ and was not issued under the Public Security Ordinance, No. 25 of 1947 (PSO).
2011: Circular concerning freedom to conduct religious activities
In addition to the 2008 circular, another circular was issued by the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs in 2011 that stipulated, ‘any construction of a place of worship, continuation of a place of worship or any activity conducted by a religious leader in the guise of religion is deemed illegal unless it has been duly approved by the Ministry’. The circular authorised the police to halt any unapproved construction or activity prior to receiving permission from a divisional secretary or the relevant provincial council. This circular was ultimately repealed following local and international opposition to its stipulations.
Post-war Religious Violence
Date/s: 2009 onwards
Event: Construction of Buddhist shrines in the North
Following the end of Sri Lanka’s armed conflict in 2009, a number of new Buddhist sites have been created in the North and East. This construction has taken place in the face of significant protest from local residents. These provinces are populated by people who are predominantly Hindu Tamil and Muslim (particularly in the East). There is also a small Christian and Buddhist population in these regions.
Some of these Buddhist shrines are constructed on civilian lands that were appropriated during the civil war for the construction of army camps and not returned. In addition to the role played by the Sri Lanka military in building and protecting these shrines, scholars have suggested that the Archaeology Department has also played a role in taking over certain lands under the claim that they were historically connected to Buddhism.
Event: Formation of the Bodu Bala Sena
The Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist organisation, Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) was founded in Colombo in 2012. The General-Secretary is Buddhist monk Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero, and the CEO of the BBS is Dilanthe Withanage. Since its formation, the BBS has been noted for its involvement in the anti-Halal campaign, the Aluthgama Riots of 2014 and widespread hate speech against minorities in Sri Lanka. In April 2012, the same month the BBS was formed, a mosque in Dambulla was attacked by ‘a large mob led by Buddhist monks’. BBS monks were allegedly part of the group that was involved in this mosque attack, and called for its removal on the grounds that it was originally a Buddhist site. Two days later, the government ordered the mosque to be closed.
Date/s: June 2014
Event: Aluthgama Riots
A dispute between a Buddhist monk and three Muslims took place on 15 June 2014 in Aluthgama – the latter were alleged to have assaulted the monk. That same day, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thero made an incendiary anti-Muslim speech in Aluthgama. Following this speech, which contained incitement to violence, riots broke out in Aluthgama, Dharga Town, Valipann and Beruwala. Three Muslims and a fourth person were killed, while more than 100 Muslim homes and businesses were attacked by mobs. There were no convictions of perpetrators who incited the violence.
Date/s: September 2014
Event: Ashin Wirathu’s visit to Sri Lanka
In September 2014, Ashin Wirathu, the leader of the Buddhist ultra-nationalist 969 Movement in Myanmar visited Sri Lanka. Wirathu had been accused of ‘stirring violence against Muslims in Myanmar’ prior to his visit to Sri Lanka. His visit took place against the backdrop of Muslim-led protests regarding a visa being issued to him.
Event: Emergence of the Sinha Le movement
Between late 2015 and early 2016, a movement known as Sinha Le (Lion’s Blood) gained prominence in Sri Lanka. The group first emerged in 2010 but did not gain public traction. The movement became active at the grassroots level and on social media, and primarily targeted Christians and Muslims. The movement accused religious minorities of controlling or interfering with the economy and government.
Event: Formation of Siva Senai
A Tamil Hindu nationalist group was set up in Vavuniya in October 2016 to fight ‘coercive conversion’ from Hinduism to other religions including Christianity and Buddhism. This group received the support of Shiva Sena in Mumbai, India. The chief organiser of Siva Senai, at the time it was established, was Maravanpulavu Sachithananthan. The chief organiser claimed to have received support from other Hindu nationalist groups in India, including the BJP and RSS.
Date/s: November 2017
Event: Anti-Muslim attacks in Gintota
On 12 November, a traffic accident involving Sinhalese and Muslim residents triggered tensions in the Gintota region in Galle. On 16 November, a Muslim politician who was formerly a Pradeshiya Sabha member allegedly led a crowd to attack Sinhalese homes in Gintota. Three people including the politician were promptly arrested by the police. Despite tensions in the area, the Special Task Forces did not remain on standby in Gintota. The following night, on 17 November, ‘dozens of Muslim homes and businesses were burned and vandalised’. Property damage included burned vehicles and shops.
On Saturday 18 November, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera of the BBS visited Gintota, and the Thuparamaya Temple. The monk called for calm, while assuring the villagers that the 16 Sinhalese men who had been arrested over the previous night’s violence would be released ‘by Monday’.
Date/s: February 2018
Event: Anti-Muslim violence in Ampara
On 26 February 2018, a Sinhalese man eating food at a restaurant in Ampara, irrationally accused the Muslim owner of putting ‘wanda pethi’ (sterilisation pills) in the food he was served. This so-called ‘wanda pethi’ was eventually revealed to be a small ball of dough. Yet the customer summoned a crowd of around 40 individuals, and the owner was taken into remand by the police. The food, too, was taken for inspection. The following morning, anti-Muslim violence broke out in Ampara town. A mosque and a number of vehicles were attacked. Five people were injured. The police eventually brought the situation under control, and offered security to mosques in the region.
Date/s: March 2018
Event: Anti-Muslim violence in Digana/Teldeniya
On 22 February 2018, a traffic accident involving allegedly drunk Muslim men, and a Sinhalese man, M.G. Kumarasinghe, occurred in Kandy. In this incident, Kumarasinghe was seriously injured, and on 3 March, he succumbed to his injuries. Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara Thera visited the victim’s home on 4 March. The BBS maintains that the monk ‘urged people…to remain calm and not engage in unnecessary clashes’. On the evening of 4 March, mobs of men attacked Muslim homes, shops and places of worship in Digana and Teldeniya, in the Kandy district.
In addition to the physical violence targeting Muslims, virulent anti-Muslim hate speech was shared widely on social media platforms, prompting then-president Maithripala Sirisena to block access to social media. A state of emergency was declared, and the Special Task Forces were deployed to quell the violence. Yet Muslim residents and human rights activists criticised the state’s response as inadequate, while some claimed that Muslim stores were looted despite, and in front of, law enforcement actors present in the area. Two people were killed in the violence. Around 450 Muslim homes and shops were attacked, while 60 vehicles were set on fire.
Date/s: 24 – 25 December 2018
Event: Vandalism of Buddhist Statues in Mawanella
Dozens of Muslim individuals vandalised a number of Buddhist statues in Mawanella in the Kegalle district, which was a site of religious violence in the early 200s. The faces of these Buddha statues were desecrated. 32 individuals were arrested in connection with the vandalism and presented before the Mawanella Magistrate’s Court. Reports linked the vandalism with the radical Islamist group National Thawheed Jamaath (NTJ), which was behind the Easter Sunday Attacks in April 2019.
Date/s: 21 April 2019
Event: Easter Sunday Attacks
On 21 April 2019, suicide bombers simultaneously targeted churches and hotels in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa. Targets included the Katuwapitiya Church in Negombo, St. Antony’s Church in Kochikade, the Zion Church in Batticaloa, and the Shangri-La, Cinnamon Grand and Kingsbury hotels in Colombo. Over 250 people were killed in the attack, and over 500 people were injured. Two further blasts took place in Dehiwala and Dematagoda as the state tracked down other suspects involved in the attack. The attackers were identified as associated with the radical Islamist group National Thawheed Jamaaath, based in the Eastern Province, and led by radical preacher Zaharan Hashim.
In the aftermath of the attacks, many Christian groups issued messages of peace, and called for calm and forgiveness.
Date/s: April - May 2019
Event: Anti-Muslim discrimination and violence in the aftermath of Easter Sunday Attacks
In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday Attacks, a state of emergency was declared by President Maithripala Sirisena. One of the regulations passed under this state of emergency included the ban of face coverings in public – targeting the niqab and the abaya in particular. In the weeks that followed, over 1,800 Muslims were arrested, allegedly in connection with the Easter Sunday Attacks. Many Muslims were arbitrarily arrested. For example, one woman was arrested for wearing clothing with purportedly Buddhist symbols.
In May 2019, anti-Muslim violence in the Puttalam, Gampaha and Kurunegala districts erupted over two nights, ostensibly in revenge for the Easter Sunday Attacks. One Muslim man was stabbed to death, while Muslim shops and mosques were set on fire. The state imposed a curfew in affected areas, and imposed a block on a number of social media platforms including Whatsapp and Facebook. Over 70 people were arrested as police attempted to contain the violence.
Date/s: 23 October 2019
Event: Cremation at Neeraviyadi Temple, Mullaitivu
On 23 September 2019, the body of a monk was cremated on the premises of the centuries-old Hindu Neeraviyadi Pillayar temple in Mullaitivu. Following his death in Colombo, his body was removed to Mullaitivu for cremation. On 22 and 23 September, the Courts prohibited this cremation on temple premises, and ordered that it be held on alternative premises.
Regardless, the cremation took place on the 23rd, in “close proximity to the “Theerthakerni”/Tank that contained Holy water in the temple premises. The cremation was done in the presence of policemen who, despite the court order, did not stop the proceedings.
The funeral was led by the monk Ven. Gnanasara of the Bodu Bala Sena, and was attended by Sinhalese crowds. Journalists reported that ‘a fracas ensued during which the priest of the…Hindu temple was severely injured’.
Syncretic and contested sites
Site: Kataragama Temple Complex
Background: The Kataragama/Kadirgamam temple complex was declared a sacred site in 1963. Buddhist and Hindu devotees make their way to the Kataragama Temple Complex in the south of Sri Lanka, seeking the blessings of the deity Skanda (‘Kataragama’) among other goods. A Muslim Sufi tomb is also situated in the complex. Certain foundational rituals observed at the site were begun by the Sri Lankan indigenous population, the Veddas. The devotees who visit this site make offerings to the gods and pray for good health, and prosperity.
Site: Adam’s Peak
Background: Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka ‘consider the foot print in Adam’s Peak to be one left by the founder or a supernatural power connected with their respective religions. For instance, Buddhists believe that the footprint on ‘Sri Pada’ (holy footprint) is that of the Buddhas. Meanwhile, Muslims believe it is the footprint of Adam, left at the place to which Adam fell when he was banished from the Garden of Eden. Hindus, by contrast, believe that the god Shiva left his footprint while ‘dancing to create the world’. They refer to the mountain as Sivanolipatha Malai (Lord Shiva’s footprint on the mount). Furthermore, certain Christians believe that the footprint belongs to St. Thomas, who is also believed to have introduced Christianity to Sri Lanka.
Site: Temple of the Tooth
Background: The Temple of the Tooth is one of the most sacred sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka. The Tooth Relic that is housed at the temple attracts religious pilgrims from abroad among many other tourists. In addition to the Buddhist relics, there are a number of devales (kovil shrines) in the broader Temple complex. These four devales dedicated to the guardian deities Skanda, Vishnu, Natha and Pattini are worshipped at by Hindus, Buddhists, and believers of other religions. Often, worshippers attempt to invoke the collective blessings of the deities while making offerings before the Tooth Relic, in attempts to secure fertility, wealth and happiness.
Background: Kantharodai is an archeological site, located in Chunnakam, Jaffna. It is a collection of small Buddhist stupas. The site, which had fallen into disrepair, was ‘re-discovered by British and Sri Lankan civil servants in the 1910s. In 1972, the Department of Archaeology began reconstruction work on Kantharodai, in the same style as the stupas in Mihintale. Thus, there is a traditional belief among Buddhists that the site, though located in the North, is a Buddhist site. However, Tamils and Tamil scholars dispute this claim by arguing that Kantharodai was a trade centre during the megalithic period with strong ties to similar megalithic settlements in Tamil Nadu. One scholar suggests that excavated evidence at Kantharodai and other Buddhist sites in the North point to an “early Dravidian or Tamil culture”, and the presence of Mahayana Buddhism within the Tamil community, similar to the contemporary Amaravati Stupa in Andhra Pradesh, India.
Current status: The archaeological site is currently occupied by the military. Tamil residents of Jaffna continue to protest the Sinhala-Buddhist narrative of Kantharodai and the building of new shrines.
Site: Kanniya Hot Springs
Background: The Kanniya Hot Springs/Wells in Trincomalee have been historically associated with Hindu tradition and mythology, highlighted by the presence of a Hindu temple within the same premises. Prior to 2014, the official information board at the site associated the legend of Ravana with the Hot Springs. In 2014, however, the site was taken over by the Department of Archeology, and the official narrative describing the site was revised to claim that the wells had been part of a Buddhist monastery. The Hindu temple, already damaged from the war, was neglected, while a new Buddhist temple was constructed in the vicinity.
Current status: Since 2019, the Department of Archaeology has made attempts to excavate and build a Buddhist stupa at the site of the Hindu temple. Local politicians and citizens protested the construction of the stupa but failed to prevent the destruction of the Hindu temple. Hindu devotees report continued hindrances from the Police and monks, impeding their ability to access the hot well and the Hindu shrine.
In June 2020, the President appointed a Task Force for Archaeological Heritage Management in the Eastern Province. This task force did not contain any minority representation.
Background: The Devanagala archaeological site is situated in the Mawanella area in Kegalle . The Devanagala rock, which bears historic inscriptions, was declared a protected archaeological site by gazette notification on 4 June 2004. By 2005, a 400-metre buffer zone was declared around the rock. However, both Sinhalese and Muslim families had lived for several decades in these areas in relative harmony for decades prior to the pronouncement of a buffer zone. The contestation of the Devanagala site emerged in the post-2009 years, in a period that saw the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric by ultra-nationalist groups including the BBS. These groups called for ‘Muslim invaders’ to be evacuated from the sacred site on the grounds that their presence eroded the Sinhala-Buddhist culture of the area.
In 2013, the Department of Archaeology issued a report that claimed those living within the 28.5 hectare Devanagala site should be relocated. However, Muslim residents in the area have produced title deeds for the lands that date back to the 1900s. These residents have received support from some Buddhist residents in the area, who claimed the Muslims cannot be expected to uproot themselves, as they have lived there for several generations.
Current status: The site continues to be contested by both Muslims and Buddhists, and no acceptable solution has been reached to date.
Background: Kuragala is a rock formation on the Balangoda Plateau, on which the Daftar Jailani mosque is situated. Kuragala carries profound archaeological significance as it has records of prehistoric settlements and is a historical place of meditation. The site contains both Brahmi and Arabic inscriptions. The Sufi saint,‘Abd al-Qādir Jīlānī is believed to have spent 12 to 13 years meditating in a rock cave at Daftar Jailani. Meanwhile, the Brahmi inscriptions have been argued to suggest the caves were donated to the Sri Lankan monkhood in around the 2nd century BC.
In 1971, the Department of Archaeology began the ‘reconstruction’ of a stupa at the summit of Kuragala, stating that a 2000-year old structure used to exist at the site. However, there is no archaeological or written evidence of such a stupa. Following inquiries, further constructions were halted in 1972. In the post-2009 period, contestation over the site was revived. There were several attempts by groups such as the BBS and Sinhala Ravaya to storm the mosque. In 2013, the government instructed that all structures except for the mosque (dating back to 1922) and the exposed Muslim tombs, were to be removed to safeguard sites of historical value. Between January and February 2015, Buddhist monks and youth stormed the Daftar Jailani area and damaged the grave of a patron among other structures in the area.
Current status: Contestation around the site persists. Ultra-nationalist groups such as the BBS and the Sihala Ravaya insist that the site should solely belong to Buddhists and be preserved as a sacred Buddhist site. Muslims insist that the mosque be allowed to remain, and that festivals and rituals surrounding the mosque should continue. Muslims and Buddhist residents in the area are willing to share the site with the ‘other’.
Background: On 20 April 2012, the Masjid-ul-Khairiya in the Dambulla town was attacked with the involvement of Inamaluwe Saddharma Keerthi Sri Ananda Sumangala Thero, the Chief Incumbent of the Rangiri Dambulla Raja Maha Viharaya. The mosque has been in existence since 1964 and was built with the support of the then Chief Incumbent of the Rangiri Dambulla Temple. After the attack, the nearby Bhadrakali Kovil was threatened with demolition. While the mosque was repaired and reopened, the kovil was demolished in October of the following year.
Members of the Muslim community and Sri Lankan civil society activists across the island protested in response to an announcement that the mosque would be relocated, calling on authorities to arrest those who were involved in the attack.
Over a year after the attack on the Masjid, at least 35 families were evicted from the area, of whom 28 were Tamils from Padeniya. The land on which their homes stood now serve as a car park and an artificial lake for the Rangiri Dambulla Temple.
Current status: Under pressure from the Urban Development Authority who were developing Dambulla town and the ‘sacred area’ between October 2012 and July 2013, several families succumbed to pressure, accepted the compensation offered, and left.
Background: The Raja Maha Viharaya and the Parivara Chaithiya are the key focal points of the Deegavapi sacred geography, and falls under the Addalachenai Divisional Secretariat. In 1983, Muslim paddy farmers in the area demarcated as belonging to the Deegavapi temple (in 1973) were asked to leave and were to be re-settled. However, when in 1997 land secured for Muslims in Pallekadu was being cleared, it was found to contain the ruins of a Buddhist temple. The Muslim politician at the forefront of the resettlement of these Muslims, M.H.M. Ashraff, was accused of intentionally destroying a Buddhist sacred site.
In 2008, the area was assigned an Urban Development Area under the name “Ampara Deegavapi Sacred Area”. Several Buddhist groups contest the area of the demarcated land, claiming that up to 12,000 acres of land around the temple contain artefacts and ruins of significance to Buddhist history. Meanwhile, Muslims have been accused of occupying sacred Buddhist lands, and for encroaching on and cultivating such lands (although Muslims living in the village of Ashraff Nagar trace their history to 1952 – before land was transferred to the Deepavapi temple in 1973).
Current status: On 11 November 2020, the Minister for Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs laid the foundation stone for the Deegavapiya Stupa Restoration project. Defence Secretary Kamal Gunaratne stated that the restoration will take place with the assistance of the Sri Lankan Army and Civil Security Department personnel.