IRF 101: Sri Lanka's Hidden Persecution of Christians

May 20, 2021

This blog is part of an International Religious Freedom 101 series providing an overview of religious freedom challenges in countries around the world. Read our previous installments on Turkey and Pakistan.

In February 2020, a mob in Ihala Yakkura led by Buddhist monks attacked and injured a Christian minister, his wife, and his son in yet another tragic episode of the persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka. The perpetrators of the attack were never tried or punished. These Christians and so many others live in fear today, downtrodden by the threat of mob violence, terrorism, and a government bent on making conversion illegal in many circumstances.

One can view this incident as part of a larger series of intimidation and outright violence against Christians in a region of the world where the dominant religion is too often stereotyped to be wholly peaceful.

Repression in Context

Sri Lanka, a Southeast Asian nation with a population of over 20 million, is home to more than one million Christians, primarily Roman Catholics. They represent a sizable minority in a primarily Buddhist state. Sri Lanka is officially a Buddhist country, according to their constitution. The promotion of a particular religion as official doctrine has wide-ranging detrimental effects on those who place their faith in a religion not endorsed by the state.

For a country exposed to the gospel ever since the evangelizing efforts of St. Thomas in the first century, the repression of Christ’s followers here must be a point of concern for all Christians.

Terrorism Targeting Christians

The worst example of Christian persecution in Sri Lanka was a series of bombings that took place in three separate churches and three hotels on Easter Sunday in 2019. These attacks killed 269 people (mostly Christians) and injured hundreds more, marking one of the deadliest acts of Islamic terror in recent memory. Later reports suggest that the plot to commit these acts of terror may have been known by Sri Lankan officials, who did not act proactively to protect the threatened Christian minority.

Suppression of Christianity in Education

Anti-Christian sentiment in Sri Lanka experienced a previous peak in 1960, when the state took over all Christian parochial schools and forbade Christian missionaries from promoting discipleship within the nation. At present, Christ-centered schooling does not enjoy the privileges that larger religious traditions are afforded. As a subject, Christianity is often not taught in religious units in state-run public schools, ensuring that Christian students are only exposed to Buddhist or Hindu traditions and rituals, depending on what region they are in.

A UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion called for reform of the Sri Lankan educational system in 2019, as the system tied students too strongly to the religion of their family, preventing the vast majority of students from learning about different faiths.

Impediments to Conversion

In Sri Lanka, converts to Christianity often face intense pressure from their families and social circles after they join the faith. The dogmatic Buddhist government is presently pursuing a variety of policies that will make it harder to become and stay a Christian in Sri Lanka. The government frames some forms of religious conversion to be “unethical conversions” that are the result of unjust pressures from outside forces. The vagueness of this language allows for the deliberate targeting of any person, group, or congregation that seeks to make disciples of non-Christians. Both Christians and non-Christians have made their opposition clear to these discriminatory laws and practices.

Christians in Sri Lanka experience levels of oppression like those living in states in the Middle East and North Africa, though the popular perceptions of the Buddhist majority often impede these issues from coming to light among Christians living abroad. They are a true minority, existing in a country where religious hostilities are fueled and encouraged by the government and by many in the Buddhist majority. Strong support and prayers are needed to help the Christians in this country in the very real struggle to praise Jesus Christ and uphold His Great Commission to make disciples of all nations.

Tyler Watt is an intern with the Center for Religious Liberty in FRC’s Policy & Government Affairs Department.