Militant Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalism: Context Of The Religious Freedom
By Uvindu Kurukulasuriya
When the Christians all over the world were preparing to celebrate the Good News of Christmas, Sri Lanka exhibited its disposition to the whole world by sending a piece of despicable news. That is the news of setting fire for the second time, to the Katuwana Roman Catholic Church at Homagama. This article was first published in January 2005 in the Sinhala weekly Ravaya. It explains the background of the religious freedom and the politics of militant Sinhalese nationalism. This translation will help you to understand the context of ongoing attacks against Mosques and Hindu Temples. The article was published under the title ”Who Set Fire to Homagama Church?” and translated by T. C. Serasinghe.
The culprits who committed this crime have so far not been apprehended. But it has been clear that there is one particular group behind the attack on this church and some hundred odd other churches throughout the country. The cause for alarm is that these people have been allowed to engage all along in their fanatical activities.
It is the everybody’s responsibility to make Sri Lanka a place suitable for human living, by getting involved in defeating decisively this extremist mania.
“Our church has been set on fire” an elderly Catholic from Homagama rang me. ”Who has done that?” I asked. “Who else but the same old group! They are against this church being here. They have forced opened the door of the church at about 1.30 am and had set two gas canisters and some tyres on fire inside the church. This time the damage is more serious than that of the previous ones. We were deprived of last year’s Christmas and this year’s too,” the man went on saying painfully.
This was the third attack on the Katuwana Roman Catholic church in Homagama. The government has so far not taken any action against this highhanded act committed repeatedly against a minority religious group by the extremist Sinhala nationalist mania, in order to politically mobilize the public.
The First Attack
On November 30 last year, after the usual Sunday mass, the parishioners were engaged in a shramadana (voluntary work) on the church premises. A group of about 50, consisting both the lay and the Buddhist clergy led by Ajith Senanayake, a prominent figure in the area forcibly entered the church premises. One of the them climbed on to the top of the church, pulled down the cross on top and fixed a Buddhist flag there. Some Buddhist monks entered the mission-house, opened the almyrahs and removed some documents. Another group robbed the ladies of their handbags and their cellular phones, national identity cards and credit cards. They planted a Bo sapling on the premises and went away.
Ajith Senanayake, a physician working in Ratnapura, an officer in the Sampath Bank, a well-known bhikku in homagama have been identified as persons who entered the hurch premises. The rest of the crowd was not residents of Homagama but young bhikkus and laymen from outside. The Parish priest lodged a complaint at the local police station. Three times the HQI tried to reconcile the two parties and asked to return the documents and the articles removed from the church, but he was not successful. In the meantime the inquiring police officer was transferred to Mirihana police station merely because he happened to be a Catholic. That day itself the police guard supplied to the church was removed. That night at about 1.30 am an unidentified body of people entered the church and set it on fire. Police investigations were resumed. Trailing the scent of a hockey stick brought by the attackers to the scene, a police dog went to a neighbouring house. In that house there was a student from a well-known Buddhist Boys’ School in Colombo. But the police said that the dog went there because there was a bitch there! The police did not take into consideration the fact that there was a Buddhist monk from that school in the crowd that attacked the church. Nothing came out of the police investigations.
By then some hundreds churches belonging to various Christian denominations were subject to attack. The secretary to the Internal Affairs Ministry told me that the police suspects this as the work of one single organised group.
An Organized Group
On February 8, 2004, a group carrying hand grenades, swords, kris knives were arrested at Rambewa. They were a group in flight after hurling grenades at the World Vision Centre at Kebilitigollewa. This armed group constituted of 10 people including three Buddhist monks. Ajith Senanayake of Homagama was one in that group. The others were Dhanushka Sanjeeva of Heiyanthuduwa, S. A. Don Sarath of Govinna, Wijesinghe of Bulathsinghala, Thusitha Namal, K. D. Gunadasa of Kahawatta and Rukshan Shantha of Kelaniya. Three Bhikkus were also arrested along with the above persons. They are Kirana Mahanama, Katuwana Sangharatana ad Millana Dharmasiri all residing at the Shri Pannananda Dharmayatana on Station Road, Kelaniya, belonging to Bengamuwe Nalaka Thera. After the arrest of this group I spoke to the former DIG Mr. Kotakadeniya who is a leader of Sinhala/Hela Urumaya. He said that they the arrested persons had no connection with the Hela Urumaya. But Ajith Senanayake of Homagama is identified by the local people as an organizer of Hela Urumaya. What Mr. Kotakadenyia said was that Ajith Senanayake worked independently on his own.
General public is perplexed in identifying persons or tendencies. There is the Hela Urumaya, the Sinala Urumaya and the National Campaign against Terrorism. There is also the Sinhala Veeradidahana, Veediya Bandara Balavegaya and the Theraputtabhaya Brigade as well. There is also the Homagama Organisation to Defend Buddhism. There are a good number of organisations formed in the name of religion. When an incident occurs, the Champika-Ratana combine could deny that it is one of their organizations. As there are a number of factions within Hela Urumaya, when a culprit has been apprehended it is easy to palm off the guilt on another organisation.
Keep the Dogs tethered
An editorial ‘Keep the dogs tethered’ appeared in the Divayina newspaper after the 3rd attack on the Katuwana Church. Its import was that the people must distinguish between religious fervour and religious fanaticism. It also had urged the local public to assist the police investigations. It was excellent indeed. But it remains that the Divayina also contributed towards the escalation of this religious fanaticism to its present proportions.
On previous occasions when this very process was launched by setting fire the churches, it was the Divayina not only supported it but also justified such actions.
Up to December, Sunday Divayina alone has published 93 main articles relevant to this subject. It was only Rev. Prof. Bellanwila Wimalaratana thera who expressed an opinion against this tendency of inciting religious extremism. The Rev. monk had said that it was easy to incite but difficult to pacify.
After the second attack and setting the Katuwana church on fire, Sunday Divayina journal ‘Irida Handa’ of January 11, 2004 wrote under the caption “in Buddhist areas, Missionary centres are not warranted. Rev. Madowita Pannakitti Thera of Homagama temple along with an editor of the Divayina newspaper had contributed towards that article. It was an article that approved of the attacks indirectly.
Obstacles from the Very Beginning
According to the 2001 census, the population of the Homagama electorate is as follows. Buddhists 189,231, Christians 3712, Islam 1479 and Hindus 962.
The church that came under attack was originally situated in the centre of the town at No. 71. This church served the faithful from Pannipitiya to Kaluaggala in which area there was no other church. It was to this church thee Catholics from Homagama, Pitipana, Athurugiriya, Galawilawatta, the army camp, Dighetekma, Godagama, Meegoda, Padukka, Rukmalgama and Mattegoda came to attend the service.
Wilfred Senanayake, who won the Homagama electorate in the 1970 general election acquired the church building and the premises for the use of the town council, amidst strong protests from the local Catholics. The Catholic Church purchased a block of land in Galwilawatta to put up a church. The town council did not approve the plan for three long years.
In 1976, the plan was approved on the orders of the then Prime Minister Sirima Bandaranayake and the Ministry of Cutural Affairs. When the walls of the building came up to roof level the Town Council again stopped the construction. At present they have put up a water tank in that block of land. The present church site was donated by Ranasinghe Premadasa by cabinet paper when he was the Minister of Planning and Implementation. Plan No. 975 has bee approved as a religious place of worship by license No. 4/1/PB/76/96 of the Pradeshiya Sabha. When things are such, the desecration of this church by extremist forces that come under the guise of Buddhism, is a disgrace to Buddhism.
It is this kind of situation, Rev. Rambukkana Siddhartha ridicules at when he writes:
“Though incessantly Buddha word is preached, though Buddha’s word is heard incessantly, as far as the attributes of the Buddha are concerned, Still we certainly are but jungle dwellers.” It is the power hungry Sinhala Politicians who through greed want to remain in power at any cost, that discredit the teachings of the Buddha in the eyes of the outside world.
They declare that their ultimate goal is to promote Buddhism. They exclaim that they are motivated by Buddhist philosophy. What is borne out by their behaviour is extreme selfish greed for power and not wisdom and love. Therefore to say that Buddha Dhamma motivates them is a grave insult on the Buddha himself. It is a grave injustice. In imitation of the Divayina editorial, we are also forced to say, “Tie up these dogs,” we also have to say that the media has a role to play towards that end. Prof. Nalin de Silva who represents the intellectual fundamentalist stream and charges that the Christmas decorations exceed the ratio of the Christian population, often writes that the supremacy in this country is with Judeo-Christian culture. But when these Christian churches were put to the torch and destroyed there were no serious protests staged. At least there was no resistance from quarters identified as the local civil society. When one hundred odd churches were attacked last year, the members of the local civil society conducted a few rounds of discussions. I also participated at these discussions. There a decision was taken to issue a statement condemning the attack on Christian places of worship. Even after 5 or 6 rounds of discussions, this statement was not issued to the media. We have such a vibrant civil society!
On the other hand there had not been any serious protest from the Catholics who are victims of this extremist trend. According to their belief suffering such attacks is a strength for the future. The Christian community has been reduced to a state of defenselessness due to their own beliefs and not being helped by the state or the civil society.
There is every possibility of a few more churches being put to the torch during this Christmas season too. The only course of action left for the Christians is to deploy the faithful to keep round the clock vigil to protect their churches.
‘We as Buddhists must condemn this shameful act of attacking the churches. We could only observe that one particular group engineered all these incidents. This is the result of using religion for political gain. Especially Roman Catholic church in Katuwana, Homagama is a church of the traditional Catholic denomination. It is not at least a place of worship of the Evangelical denominations. By this I do not mean that Evangelical centres should be attacked. What we have to admit is that this type of denominations convert poor Buddhists through various strategies like giving them financial support.
In this the chief priests of Christian/Catholic churches have the responsibility to take action against this tendency and foster religious harmony in this country. In the same manner, the government also has an onerous responsibility to take action against these tendencies. Though this government has on many occasions declared that it would create an inter-religious forum and foster cooperation among religions, up to now that advisory body has not been formed. It is in this context that extremist political groups commit such shameful acts in the name of Buddhism.
Our observation reveals that these extremist attacks had been taking place for quite a long period of time and are not the act of the people living in the locality where the churches are situated. It is a group from outside that have done it.
Both the government and the police must take action against it. When such incidents are known in abroad, the image of our nation is tarnished. The idea that Buddhists are a group that commits such base acts will spread throughout the world. On the other hand more and more aid could flow into the coffers of Evangelical denominations. Therefore, these acts committed in the name of religion should be stopped.’