Freedom of expression, right to a religion and attacks on minority religions have been in discussion within the last couple of days. It has raised a heated public debate, unending discussions among academics of various fields. Following the interviews with Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe and Attorney-at-law Lakshan Dias, the ‘Daily Mirror’ contacted different professionals and leaders in religions and of the civil society seeking their points of view in this social dilemma.
“Evangelical movement is indigenous”
– Godfrey Yogarajah, General Secretary of the National Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL)
Chief Executive Officer of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka Godfrey Yogarajah insisted that the Christian community has never resort to violence and denied the presence of so called fundamentalists.
“The public can always complain to the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka or the National Evangelical Christian Alliance if there had been any misconduct in our networks. We already have in place a strict set of rules and regulations in investigating and inquiring in to these matters and we do take necessary action on our own membership without delay. There are strict regulations within our administration that these religious places and clergy have to follow ensuring transparency in their conduct and assuring it serves for the betterment of the followers and to the community,” he explained.
He emphasized that the Evangelical movement is an indigenous religious network that surfaced from the grass root levels. “Our members do not carry a colonial heritage but this is a religious community that grew up from the Sri Lankan soil,” he highlighted.
“Our members do not carry a colonial heritage but this is a religious community that grew up from the Sri Lankan soil”
Explaining the recent report published in May by the NCEASL Yogarajah said that facts and figures indicated are derived from the grass root level through grievances reported by victimized parties. “This is reported within our membership and there could be more which were not,” Yograjah pointed out. He added that the NCEASL has inquired in to these incidents by visiting the victimized communities and attack sites and also have supported them to take legal action. Explaining the nature of attacks Yogarajah said that some of them have been violent physical attacks damaging property while others were threats, intimidation and public officials advising them to close down the place of worship etc.
“Majority of the attacks by mobs have been reported to the Police,” he said. He added that there are several ongoing court cases even with video footage as evidence but without any judgment given so far.
“Establish a standardization code in consultation with all religious leaders”-
Ven. Dambara Amila Thera – Senior Lecturer
Speaking to the ‘Daily Mirror’ Ven. Dambara Amila Thera, a Buddhist scholar and leading political commentator, said that there is no doubt over establishing the right for a religion for all citizens in the country. Commenting on the statement made by lawyer Lakshan Dias, the prelate said, “It is very important for any person to highlight these social injustices happening because more damage could be caused by keeping silent about these issues.”
“In order to avoid the misuse of this freedom, there is a need to establish a standardization mechanism of these religious institutes, in consultations with leaders of all religions existing in this country ensuring that they provide a genuine service to the public, even to a small community and assuring the right to a religion is not violated,” he added.
When questioned about the alleged involvement of Buddhist priests in certain attacks, as per records, social media uploads and Police complaints, Ven. Amila Thera emphasized that the rule of law applies to anyone, irrespective of being a member of the clergy or a laity. “In the first line, people can be told not to do the wrong. If that doesn’t work rules must come in and when rules are broken it should be punishment. If anyone violates the law he/she needs to be punished within the rule of law,” the Thera emphasized.
“On the other hand, all religions and their leaders must keep in mind that none has an authoritative power. Respecting the visionaries of all these religions we must understand, no religion can impose power on the Govt. The Govt. is elected by the citizens to serve the country, protect rights of the people and ensure peace and harmony. It is not to serve a religion.” He added.
It is an uncalled-for comment and very inappropriate
Geoffrey Alagarathnam Pc – former President of BASL
“One can request an explanation but making inappropriate public comments is a most unfortunate incident”
Commenting on the response from Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe on Lawyer Lakshan Dias’s statement, Geoffrey Alagarathnam categorized this as a ‘knee jerk’ reaction.
“It is an uncalled-for comment and very inappropriate,” he added. Adding further he stated that the power to disbar a lawyer is granted only to the Supreme Court following a procedure. He pointed out that Lawyer Lakshan Dias has his rights to express his views. “One can request an explanation but making inappropriate public comments is a most unfortunate incident,” stressed Alagarathnam.
On further note he said that if Lakshan Dias’s comment was found to be wrong then one could take further steps within the rule of law and until such action it is inappropriate to make accusations before inquiring in to the accuracy of the statement.
“Minister’s reaction undermines freedom of religion, freedom of thought and expression”
The Sri Lankan Chapter of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA-SL)
The South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA) Sri Lanka in its recent statement emphasized that Minister Rajapakshe should withdraw his threats and instead actively address this ongoing situation of religious conflict and oppression.
Further it pointed out that as a body of journalists dedicated to social justice they are shocked at the Justice Minister’s threatening remarks against a lawyer directly in connection with that lawyer’s professional defence of religious rights which are guaranteed by the Freedom of Expression bestowed by the constitution.
Commenting on attacks on various religions existing in Sri Lanka, SAFMA in its statement mentioned that “Both the Buddha Sasana and the Vedic denominations have suffered persecution since ancient times, including the colonial era. In recent times Mosques and Churches have experienced persecution.”
Speaking to the ‘Daily Mirror’, SFMA President Lakshman Gunasekara said that all religions have taken steps since ancient times, to disperse their visions by reaching various communities through their disciples.
“All religions have taken a keen interest, since ancient times, to disperse their vision or belief. The interest still exists. We must understand that religions, within their freedom of expression, have a right to preach the vision they believe,” explained Gunasekara.
Mr. Gunasekara pointed out that by any chance if this freedom violates other people’s rights that can be dealt within the rule of law.
In such a background, he stressed that as SAFMA Sri Lanka, they are concerned on the Minister’s reaction which is hindering and undermining the freedom of religion and, consequently, the freedom of thought and expression.
“The Govt. must publicly reaffirm respect to Human Rights”-
Statement by Concerned Human Rights and Democratic Rights Activists and Organisations
Issuing another statement, 72 individuals of various academic fields and human right activism and 25 leading civil society organisations have demonstrated their concern over the narrowing down of the democratic space and freedoms that this Government promised to protect.
“These are but the most recent in a series of incidents that point to a disturbing tendency of shrinking space for critique within and outside government, and signs of intolerance for expressions of dissent,” the group point out in the statement.
Pointing out the series of disturbing tendencies of the Government, they make strong requestsfrom the President and the Prime Minister on three main areas.
One is to publicly re-affirm respect to Human Rights and for the Government to distance from the threats made by Minister Rajapakshe. And ensure the protection of whistleblowers of public institute pointing out that the Government should cease action taken against such conscientious public officials.
And as the third, they urge the Government to establish an environment within their sphere as well as in society that is conducive to expression of human rights concerns, dissent and criticism.
“Closely monitoring; will consider all facts”
U.R. de Silva, President – BASL
“We will request Attorney-at-Law Dias to send an affidavit with all details pertaining to the matter”
President of the Sri Lanka Bar Association U.R. de Silva confirmed that they have received written notifications from both parties – i.e. Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe and Attorney at Law Lakshan Dias about the situation. “We will request Attorney-at-Law Dias to send an affidavit with all details pertaining to the matter,” he added. He said that the BASL was informed by the Justice Minister Rajapakshe that he would take necessary action to file a case at the Supreme Court. “Until I see the plaint I cannot give a comment on this. But once the plaint is available we will examine the facts raised and take them in to consideration,” he added.
The members of the BASL have gathered recently to discuss this matter and de Silva said members showed a mixed reaction.
De Silva said that the BASL is closely monitoring the situation and ensured that all aspects will be taken in to consideration before their final action.
“An alarming trend of religious bigotry and intolerance which has gone unchecked”
Attorney-at-Law Saliya Peiris, Commissioner/Spokesperson of SLHRC
Commissioner Saliya Peiris confirmed that the Sri Lanka Human Rights Commission has received the complaint from Attorney-at-Law Lakshan Dias on the situation he is currently facing.
The SLHRC has informed President Maithripala Sirisena in a letter dated May 31, 2017 on the concerned number of attacks to places of worship of religious minorities. The letter is in attention to “an alarming trend of religious bigotry and intolerance which has gone unchecked.”
Commissioner Peiris confirmed about the details of the letter from the HRC to President Sirisena on the growing religious intolerance signed by its Chairperson. The letter, reproduced in the HRC website, points out that ‘such expressions of hate and violence targeting a specific community amounts to crimes under the ICCPR Act, No.27 of 2007 and the Penal Code of Sri Lanka. The HRC has requested the President in the letter to give “urgent directions to Ministry of Law and Order and the Inspector General of Police to take all necessary action against the instigators and perpetrators of violence and hate speech targeting the Muslim community as well as other religious minorities.”
‘A threat to silence all human rights defenders’
Herman Kumara – Coalitions Against Racism – a Citizens’ Movement
A citizens’ movement called ‘Coalition Against Racism’ organised a public protest in front of the Fort Railway Station recently condemning the threat remarks by Minister Rajapakshe undermining the freedom of speech and the vagueness of the Government on the spate of attacks on religious minorities. A key organizer of the event human rights activist Herman Kumara, commenting on the issue said by attempting to silence Lawyer Lakshan Dias there is a highly possible threat on silencing all who stand up against injustice. “The society has its differences. But this diversity was misinterpreted at various periods of time in history,” said Herman.
Commenting further he added that attacks happening on minority religions are conducted by a few extremist groups but these incidents had been blown out of proportion by media. When questioned as to whether it is justifiable to keep these fundamental right violations semi visible, Herman explained that highlighting these issues could easily stir up fear among people of being attacked simply because of their religious identities.
“In these situations we at the grass root level have to deal with people whose livelihoods are at risk, property loss, damages to families etc. The most appropriate action would be for the authorities to take necessary steps according to the rule of law and deliver justice without delay,” he emphasized.
May, 2017 – The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka issued a report on attacks by various parties against Evangelical Christian churches across the country. Highlighting the need of the urgent concern by relevant authorities, the report cited 20 attacks in the last few months of 2017. The report also included details on similar violent incidents since 2015.
May 31, 2017 – The Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission wrote to President Maithripala Sirisena raising the Commission’s concern over the attacks on religious minorities mentioning the spate of attacks on places of Christian religious worship.
June 14, 2017 – Human Rights Lawyer Lakshan Dias raised the issue of attacks on places of Christian religious worship during a TV talk show aired by the Derana TV. As his comment mentioned the involvement of Buddhist priests in some of these attacks a hostile situation arose with an agitated reaction from the program presenter and some of the other panellists.
June 17, 2017 – Justice and Buddha Sasana Minister Wijedasa Rajapakshe said, addressing the audience at the opening ceremony of the new Court complex in Mankulam, Killinochchi that he would take necessary legal action to remove lawyer Lakshan Dias from his profession for the comment the latter had made during the TV talk show.
June 17, 2017 – President Maithripala Sirisena at another public event said that the Colombo Archbishop Rt. Rev. Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith denied any knowledge of attacks on churches.