Freedom of religion in Sri Lanka

The constitution of Sri Lanka states under Chapter II, Article 9, "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 the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1)(e)."[1] Articles 10 and 14(1)(e) provide all citizens the freedom to adopt, practice and teach any religion of their choice.[2] Concurrently in 1978, Buddhism was declared as the State religion by President J. R. Jayawardene. This preferential treatment to Buddhism is therefore highly controversial in Sri Lanka,[3][4] which is seen as the prime factor in the rise of Tamil separatism.

Matters related to family law, e.g., divorce, child custody and inheritance are adjudicated under customary law of the applicable ethnic or religious group. For example, the minimum age of marriage for women is 18 years, except in the case of Muslims, who continued to follow their customary religious practices of girls attaining marrying age with the onset of puberty and men when they are financially capable of supporting a family.[5]

At times, local police and government officials appeared to be acting in concert with Buddhist nationalist organizations. In addition, in 2013 NGOs allege that government officials provided assistance, or at least tacitly supported the actions of societal groups targeting religious minorities.[6]

In 2014, the government established a special religious police unit to deal with religious complaints. The new unit reports to the Ministry of Law and Order, although it is housed in the Buddhist Division of the Ministry of Buddhist Sasana and Religious Affairs. Critics argue that it will bolster and strengthen the violent Buddhist groups.[7]

There is no existing legislation which restricts the right of individuals to proselytize members of one faith to convert them to another religion. Foreign clergy may work in the country, but for the last three decades, the government has limited the issuance of temporary work permits. Work permits for foreign clergy are issued for one year (rather than five years as in the past). It is possible to obtain extensions of work permits.[8]

This coexistence has been recently marred by isolated incidents and attacks on religious places by Buddhist mobs and by LTTE. Similarly Sri Lankan air force particularly has air raided Hindu, Christian shrines during the peak of war thinking that LTTE is taking shelter in there. Navaly church bombing is one notable example of air raid by Sri Lankan air force.

Several Hindu temples were attacked in the riots of 1983 in Colombo and South of Sri Lanka.

Two of the holiest sites for Buddhists in Sri Lanka, the Sri Maha Bodhi Tree and the Temple of the Tooth, have been attacked and bombed by the LTTE. In recent times, the LTTE have also attacked several Muslim mosques in the North-Eastern parts of the country. Navaly church bombing is one notable such air raid by Sri Lankan air force.

Freedom of religion in Sri Lanka is however claimed to have been historically upheld through religious tolerance . The practice of Hinduism was allowed under Sinhala kings since the Anuradhapura era. Buddhist Sinhala kings gave protection to Muslims fleeing from Portuguese persecution and to Catholics fleeing from persecution by the Dutch after having defeated by the Portuguese.


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