Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Colombo (Fides Service) – The third torching of a Catholic church in a few days has put the Catholic community in Sri Lanka in a state of alarm. The news was confirmed to Fides by Father Damien Fernando, head Caritas Sri Lanka. The church, set on fire by Buddhists extremists on January 26, is in a village in the Mathegoda district east of capital Colombo. Some twenty men were seen to take part in the episode. After sacking the church, breaking statues and windows and sacred objects the men set fire to fuel poured over the floor and within minutes there was nothing left of the building but gutted ruins. Fortunately no one was hurt. But the attackers have not yet been identified.
In this wave of anti-Christian violence Buddhist fundamentalists had already burned two churches: on January 18 January St Anthony’s near the village of Pannipitiya, and on 15 January St Michael’s at Homagama, both districts not far from the capital Colombo. According to the UK based Christian Solidarity Worldwide association, earlier, between 24 and 29 December there were no less than 20 incidents involving Christians of various denominations in which 15 people were injured, including a 28 December attack on the Catholic church of Our lady of Lourdes.
“We ask international media to give more space to what is happening in Sri Lanka. Even our services of social assistance are targeted. We are accused of making fraudulent conversions with bribes or promises and to offer social assistance to obtain conversions. All this when the people we help, many of them non Christians, are enthusiastic and grateful ” father Fernando told Fides.
The head of Caritas told Fides that to isolate fundamentalists Catholics are taking steps to “consolidate good relations established with local Buddhist communities, explaining what really happened. ”.
Hostility and protests heightened after the sudden death of leading Buddhist monk Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero, supporter of fierce Buddhists nationalism, who died unexpectedly in mid December while visiting Russia. Although the official autopsy confirmed heart failure as the cause of death, certain media speculated on the monk’s mysterious death and possible Christian conspiracy. Venerable Gangodawila Soma Thero was the leader of a Buddhist lobby Sasana Sevaka Sangamaya which sees Christian charity works as “tools of diabolic power aimed at converting Sinhalese Buddhists to Christianity ”.
After the recent attacks Fides spoke with the Archbishop Colombo, Archbishop Oswald Gomis, President of the Bishops’ Conference who said: “The violence is an answer to the attitude of certain Protestant Christians sects leading brazen conversion campaigns which anger Buddhists. For people of other faiths Christians are all the same and even though Catholic communities are not to blame they are targeted. I would agree with the Buddhists with regard to protestant . In fact we have tried to tell these religious leaders that they are causing trouble but they will not listen. We are all concerned at this sudden outbreak of unprecedented violence”.
The Archbishop said “fundamentalism is spreading among Buddhists and Christians and it is not easy to stop. Aggressive proselytism does not mix with dialogue which is the path we must take. Our relations with Buddhist leaders have always been excellent but now they are being polluted with this violence. But these are still only episodes and extremist Buddhists and Christians are to blame. We must not let them destroy our good relations.”
The Bishops of Sri Lanka have issued a statement condemning proselytism while demanding respect for the individual conscience and the right of every person to change their religion.
(PA) (Fides Service 28/1/2004 lines 46 words 612)