“Although we are Sri Lankans we are second class citizens. But today I learnt that we are first class citizens. That is something we Christians must win for ourselves within the legal frame work”. These were Ps. Sudath Premathileke’s concluding remarks following the workshop on ‘Law and the Church’ conducted by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka’s (NCEASL) Religious Liberty Commission (RLC) in February.
It had only been a month into the New Year when the RLC recorded over fifteen incidents of violence and intimidation against Christians. While the election of a new government in 2015, seemed to bring to an end the state support once enjoyed by religious extremist groups, local government authorities did not appear to be on the same page as the new Government, that promised to “prevent actions and speech that lead to denigration of other races and religions”. This was also highlighted in the Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for 2015 that noted that “police harassed religious minorities at their houses of worship, did not stop religiously-motivated attacks and sometimes participated in them…”
The RLC’s documentation that contributed to the findings of the USCIRF, continued to record incidents of discrimination, particularly by state officials in relation to education, the freedom of worship and even Christian burials.
Ps. Premathileke, a one-time security force personnel is now a pastor at a church in the Ampara district. He was one among the 29 Christian clergy and pastoral workers gathered in Kalmunai on the 17th of February to have these concerns addressed. Ps. Premathileke has spent years trying to comprehend the ambiguous laws and regulations surrounding Christian ministry in Sri Lanka. “Today I learnt a new thing; there is no need to register a church. I was of the opinion that we needed to register!” he said, confident in his newly acquired knowledge. Like Ps. Premathileke, several other participants who had come from Batticaloa and Ampara were perplexed by calls by local government authorities, who refer to ‘cirulars’ to register their churches with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs
While addressing pressing questions in this area, the RLC briefed the participants on what steps should be taken when their right to the freedom of religion and belief is violated. The workshop also dealt with problems Christian children face in securing admission in Government Schools. Several of the participants also expressed their dissatisfaction over the practice of educators who compelled Christian children to observe rituals of another faith in the schools they attended.
While apprising the participants of their rights, the participants were also made aware of their responsibilities with regard to the freedom of religion and belief. The importance of cultural sensitivity in the manifestation of their faith was also highlighted at the workshop:Participants were encouragedto be mindful of practices that may cause a disturbance, prove offensive or even intensify existing tensions. The importance of adhering to the protocol for the use of loud speakers in residential and non-residential areas was another one of the subjects discussed in this regard.
For Ps. Sarath Singh, life since 2004, in a remote and underprivileged village in the Ampara district, has given him little opportunity to learn the workings of the law and the church in Sri Lanka. The border village where he lives was once prone to attacks during the war and even faced problems with little or no access to clean drinking water. “Now however those problems are over! Now the only problem that we have is with the elephants!” said Ps. Singh, optimistic in the face of looming troubles.
The workshop was a source of encouragement to Ps. Singh who had begun to face run-ins with the law in carrying out his ministry. He was confident that he would be able to, resolve the problems he faced to a great extent through what he learned at the workshop that day. “Even though I once heard about the regulations surrounding the construction of religious places of worship – today I understood what it all meant!” he said, thankful that he was now equipped not only with knowledge of his rights but also his responsibilities as a citizen.
“Although we are Sri Lankans we are #secondclasscitizens. But today I learnt that we are first class citizens. That is…