The attack carried out on a Muslim Mosque (reminiscent of the Babri Masjid incident) in Sri Lanka sparks new fears that there is a rise in attacks religious freedoms within the country. The protest outside the Jumma mosque in Dambulla on 20 April 2012, which also included members of the Buddhist clergy, disrupted the Muslims’ traditional Friday afternoon prayers.
Then, despite the police presence, the protestors broke into the mosque and caused damage to the property, and copies of the Quran and other religious texts. Subsequent to this attack came a letter from the office of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, dated 22 April 2012, ordering the removal of the mosque from the area, claiming that the mosque is situated within a Buddhist religious area. The office of the Prime Minster states that the order for removal was sent after consultation with Muslim political leaders, but Muslim leaders (even those who support the government) have denied this openly in the media.
This incident also raises questions about the Buddhist values the government claims to practice which are clearly a move away from the teachings of Lord Buddha.
This mosque, which was allegedly built in 1964, is – according to some – built on land belonging to a Buddhist temple, but this claim is refuted by the Muslims who state that the land previously held a shrine of a Muslim Sufi saint. According to a research carried out by the Centre for Policy Alternatives, Sri Lanka the report concludes that “In the instance of the Dambulla Mosque, contradictory reports have created confusion as to the rightful owner of the land due to the contestation of ownership and the lack of clarity, regarding which laws are applicable to the specific case.”
Buddhists and Muslims in Sri Lanka have coexisted for more than ten centuries and good relations have, for the most part, withstood 500 years of colonialism, the politics of divide and rule and the tensions of the modern era. There is a belief the Muslims stood as buffers against the division of the country during the three decade long civil war. During an opening of a Mosque in Nuwara Eliya on 11 April 2012 the President of Sri Lanka noted that “the Muslims have always been friends of the Sinhalese historically as well as today and that they have been defending the country together with the Sinhalese”.
This incident calls that into question. It must be noted that this attack follows a string of attacks on the property of Christians and the Muslims – as well as the summer of “grease devil” attacks largely aimed at Muslim women. In addition these attacks happen against a backdrop of the continued cultural attacks on Hindu shrines (the predominant religion of Tamils) and promotion of Bhuddist iconography (the predominant religion of Sinhalese people) across the north. Recently Illangaithurai Muhathuwaram (which was renamed Lanka Patuna), a Hindu Shrine, was removed and replaced by a Buddhist statue. Sri Lanka has a fundamental and the constitutional right of any person to engage in worship, and no one has the right to enter a place of worship for the purpose of disturbing worship or damaging property. But repeatedly these rights are waived.
It is clear that the attack on the mosque and the order for its removal is in clear violation of international law concerning minorities and religious freedom. This rising Buddhist fundamentalism and extremism, whipped up for the civil war and the Rajapaska election campaigns, poses grave danger to a country which is already brutalised by an ethnic war and post war militarisation. Recently, Sri Lanka has been criticised for its lack of reconciliation, in both the UN Human Rights Council Resolution and their own Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Committee (LLRC) report. It is important that Government of Sri Lanka should take immediate action to promote and protect the rights of minorities, either ethnic or religious, in order to have proper reconciliation and lasting peace in the country.
As the Minority Rights Group have said, they could start by ensuring that they carry out a full and impartial investigation to this attack and revoke the order of removal, while also conducting discussions with the Buddhist and Muslim religious leaders in order to reach an amicable solution to this problem. It must be highlighted that it is the responsibility of the government to protect the rights of its citizens, especially that of religious minorities.