Religious Freedom and Tolerance

A small church in Anuradhapura is on news these days. A group of youth from the surrounding area had harassed a dozen or so believers who came to their religious place of worship from the nearby villages on Sunday the 14th of April 2019, as they’ve been doing on every Sunday for the past 10 years. Rev. Bishop Asiri Perera was at the church on that day and experienced the harassment firsthand.

The worshippers who were locked inside the premises at the gate by the group were later released by the Police. Prior to this, the same group had harassed the worshippers on Sunday the 31st of March 2019. According to Rev. Bishop Perera (who was not present at that incident), the local council member one Nalin Siriwardane, member of SLPP was present with the group.

Before I go any further, let me say that I’m writing this after a long phone call with the kind Rev. Bishop Asiri Perera who took the time and trouble to explain the whole situation from his understanding. I believe this is a good opportunity for us to understand how these issues manifest.

No religious conflict

When the two parties were called to the police earlier this week, Nalin Siriwardane had too arrived on his own and had claimed that as the local council member, he’s representative of the accused youth. This was tweeted by MP Harsha De Silva making it a political issue by asserting that SLPP is involved in this incident. I had a WhatsApp chat with MP De Silva to understand his view as well.

Rev. Bishop, specifically told me that he does not believe that this is a religious conflict. He reiterated that no Buddhist monk is involved. He said that they had no issues for the past 10 plus years and in fact the villagers had even helped them during a funeral of one the staff members of the church. So let us be clear that this is NOT an inter-religious conflict, as some are trying to portray.

So I asked what are the demands of the harassers. Rev. Bishop explained that the harassers don’t want the worshippers to practice religion in their village because they’re not from the same village. I asked him when did this first started. Rev. Bishop explained that it all started since around February when a woman (non-Buddhist) who lives in the house opposite to the church arrived from overseas. She has been complaining rather aggressively that the church activities are loud, disturbing and the church goers are a nuisance to her.

This immediately reminded me of a twitter conversation that I had with a person who complains about the loud chanting of a Buddhist temple in her area. And she’s not alone. I’m sure some of you who are reading this are also against the sounds emanating from places of worship. So allow me to discuss a little bit about this aspect.

Constitutional Rights

Every citizen of the Republic of Sri Lanka has an equal right “to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his/her choice” (Constitution 10) AND “the freedom, either by him/herself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his/her religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching” (Constitution 14). Furthermore “no citizen shall be discriminated against on the grounds of religion and no person shall, on the grounds of religion, be subject to any disability, liability, restriction or condition with regard to access to places of public worship of his/her own religion” (Constitution 12). That’s the law.

While we are at it, let me also state that the Buddhists have no special privilege in any regard. Whether you are a Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Christian, Muslim, Sai devotee, a Scientologist or whatever religion you believe in, you all have the exact equal freedom of religion. Constitution 9 gives the foremost place to Buddhism and protects & foster Buddha Sasana, but NOT Buddhists.

But because your freedom ends where my freedom begins, should I have the right not to be disturbed? Now that is an interesting predicament. The way I see it is that, this is where we need tolerance. We are a Republic of diverse national/ethnic and religious cultural identities. If we are to embrace that diversity we will have to tolerate each others’ identities. Not suppress them. What it means is that, we have to tolerate the chanting of Pirith, sounds of drums and bells, singing of Hymns, and call for Prayers. Now for me, this religious diversity of the Republic is something not just to tolerate, but to celebrate.

At the same time, it is the obligation of the Buddhist temples, Hindu kovils, Catholic and Christian churches, Islamic mosques or any place of worship and the worshippers themselves to consider the freedoms of other citizens. And the sign of maturity as a Republic with diverse identities will be seen at that equilibrium.

Role of the People’s Representatives

So let’s come back to the incident in Anuradhapura. Neither I nor Rev. Bishop has any evidence to suggest that the harassers and the woman complainer has any connection. That should be the task of the police. According to Rev. Bishop when the woman was confronted by the police, she has been verbally abusive to the Pastor of the church.

Now this brings us to the local council member. Why was he with the youth group on the 31st Sunday? Why did he come to the police and claimed to represent the accused. There can be many reasons for his involvement. Rev. Bishop and I felt that it could most likely be for petty election reasons; that he has to show his supporters that he stands by them. Or it could be an elaborate scheme to get hold of the church land, or it could be that he’s a downright idiot. I hope the SLPP leadership will take immediate disciplinary action and set an example.

Rev. Bishop also explained to me something that the council member said at the police station. Apparently the council members there are drafting a law to prevent places of worship within residential areas. Rev. Bishop had challenged such claims because according to the constitution, no such rule can exist. This is why I always say that let alone the common citizen, most of the elected officials including the members of parliament seem to have very limited understanding about the Constitution of the Republic of Sri Lanka.

Duty of the Police

This whole matter could have been managed if the police acted promptly after the incident on the 31st of March. If they had brought all the parties together and explained the law and tried to resolve the issue/s, as they should, perhaps the recent incident could have been prevented. Now the case is with the magistrate court. So we’ll have to wait for the court’s decision.

Lastly, in my WhatsApp thread with MP Harsha De Silva we discussed the importance of not politicising these incidents. It is tempting to pass blame and score some political points. But that could lead to far worse outcomes because we then amplify the issue to a larger audience creating unnecessary tension between communities who are ill informed anyway.

Now I as a responsible citizen took the trouble to actually call Rev. Bishop Asiri Perera and understand what had happened. But not everybody’s going to do that. So I and Harsha both have a responsibility to verify what we say and say it in a responsible way. So next time when you hear about an incident like this, please try to understand it before reacting or coming to any conclusion. Oh and for the sake of the Republic, please read and understand the Constitution.

(After I wrote this post some have brought to my attention that religious conversion might also have a role here. I will write a separate article on the issue of religious conversions.)

To get a basic understanding of your Freedoms, Rights and Obligations as citizens of the Republic, read my new book (currently available only in Sinhala). Help me to translate this into Tamil.JANARAYA (Republic) by Eranda Ginige


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Eranda Ginige
Social Innovator, Writer, Speaker