An attack on a church

Print edition : February 13, 2004
recently in Homagama

HOMAGAMA is a mere 25 kilometres from the Sri Lankan capital, Colombo. Its layout and general features are similar to those of any other Sri Lankan town. The placid town shot into news when on January 14 its Roman Catholic St. Michael's Church was attacked for the second time since November.

A priest points to the damage caused to the prayer hall of St.Michael's Church.-SENA VIDANAGAMA/ AFP

"I was asleep in an inner room when I heard the clamour of a mob. I was scared to open the door, but I raised a noise in order to alert the neighbours. It was all over in about 15 minutes. When I came out, this (the completely damaged prayer hall) was what remained," an employee of the church told Frontline. He began to recall the incident in halting English but eager to let the outside world know the emotions of a community under siege, he sent out an errand boy to seek the assistance of an English-speaking member of the parish.

The 1.1 million Christians of Sri Lanka form a minuscule part (6.87 per cent) of the island's population. The majority of them - 6.06 per cent - are Roman Catholic. Buddhist-dominated Homagama has 155 Catholic families, who, like Christians elsewhere in southern Sri Lanka, live in fear.

If emotional and physical insecurity is a constant fact of life across the nation, the events since late 2003 have been less than encouraging. A build-up over the years included emotional calls: hardline Buddhists charged the Church with aiding and abetting Tamil separatism, the peace process to resolve the ethnic strife was slammed as a Western (read Christian) conspiracy, a prominent Western diplomat, Chris Patten, was accused of being a "White Tiger" and, to queer the pitch further, the bogey of a Christian conspiracy was raised following the demise of a popular Buddhist monk Soma Thera, in early December.

The attack on the church is one more sordid example of the re-emergence of hardline Buddhist opinion. A belligerent section of the southern hardliners has been campaigning against the so-called forcible conversion of Buddhists to Christianity by evangelists, driving fear into the minds of the minority Christians. Often, local disputes are at the root of the attacks on religious minorities, with some of these emotive issues providing a rallying point.

For instance, hardline Buddhists allege that the St. Michael's Church was built on "unauthorised land". The priest, Gregory Anthony, refutes this by saying that he has all the legal documents to prove the land is authorised. Fr. Anthony says the allegation of "forcible conversions" was not true of Catholic churches.

During the first attack on St. Michael's Church on November 30, a group of Buddhist hardliners broke the cross on the rooftop and placed a Buddhist flag in its place. A bo tree, considered sacred by Buddhists, was planted in the churchyard. "We sought police protection at that time. But we were provided police security only after the second attack," Fr. Anthony said.

A build-up of threat and intimidation elsewhere in the island preceded the attack on his church, he said.

Fr. Anthony said members of the church had taken the issue seriously. "Now they are organising themselves. The men come to the church in the night, while the women spend a few hours during the day." Even Christmas celebrations, he said, were low-key "because we were threatened". He recalls the warning the hardliners had issued that "even if a single firecracker is lit, you would have to face the consequences".

A woman parishioner said, fighting back her tears: "We now come to church with a sense of fear. They broke the statuette of St. Michael." However, she added, "by and large, the Buddhists are very friendly. Some of them even helped us build this church."

As one of the few families that live in the vicinity of the church, the midnight attack of January 14 has changed her family's views on living without fear in a Buddhist-majority suburb of Colombo. Two armed policemen stand vigil as part of the round-the-clock security provided by the local police.

The isolated but condemnable attacks on churches have resulted in the emergence of a loose solidarity among the various Christian denominations. At Homagama, this was visible with two priests from other Christian denominations - Anglican and the Assembly of God - visiting the Catholic church.

The attacks on Christians, says Lakshman Peiris, an Anglican priest from Colombo, have been "subtle" but "sustained" over the past few months. Fr. Peiris sees them as the work of hardliners "who want to disrupt the peace" rather than that of the majority Buddhists.

"We now know the agony the Tamils in the north would have gone through," says a woman parishioner.

The charred pews and burnt altar at St.Michael's stand testimony to a disturbing trend of religious discord in southern Sri Lanka. They are also early warning signals of the disastrous consequences for Sri Lanka, which is going through its longest phase of peace since 1983, if religious sentiments come centre-stage in an already divided domestic polity.

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