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Sunday, 1 February 2004  
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Violating the sacred

Sri Lanka, a multi-religious country, gave the lead to the nations that protested the Taliban regime's initiative to destroy the famous Buddha images in Bamian, Afghanistan.

Sri Lankan Buddhists as well as all other Sri Lankans collectively grieved over that heinous crime against human civilisation perpetrated by the forces of religious fundamentalism and extremism.

Today, the destruction of sacred images has begun in our own country. Sri Lankans are reeling in shock over the spate of attacks on religious shrines, the savage destruction of sacred images and symbols and, the assault and intimidation of religious workers both lay and clerical. The target is one religion: Christianity.

According to reports, last year alone saw more than 100 incidents of such attacks on churches. While the vast majority of the places of worship so attacked belonged to the self-styled 'evangelical' denominations, there were also some attacks on Protestant and Roman Catholic churches with long histories of existence in, and harmonious relations with, the community in their localities. The evidence seems to indicate that the attacks are largely the initiative of persons posturing as adherents of Buddhism with a few attacks involving people posturing as Hindus.

Along with this rising trend of 'religious' violence, there is a growing public outcry against something described as 'unethical' conversion campaigns being carried out by groups of Christians targeting people of other religions. The accusation of 'unethical' conversion is primarily being directed at the 'evangelical' groups. The Government is under pressure to legislate to ban attempts to convert by unethical means.

The self-styled 'evangelical churches strenuously deny that they resort to 'unethical' conversions.

While the vast majority of Buddhists and Hindus strongly condemn these acts of violence being perpetrated in the name of their religions, there are many Buddhist and Hindu leaders who have been alarmed by the sheer scale of the conversion of their faithful to membership in these evangelical churches.

They are dismayed by the seemingly powerful capacity of these proselytising organisations with their countrywide reach, extensive resources, much of which comes from the rich, Christian-dominated nations of the West, and, their ability to offer social and economic inducements to non-Christians, especially the poor or those traumatised by conflict and other social problems.

Given the organisational power of the proselytisers and the fact that this power emanates from Western sources, Buddhist and Hindu leaders see a veritable continuity of the old colonial and imperial European attack on the indigenous culture and spiritual resources of the colonised lands and communities. The underlying fear is that the modern Christian proselytising enterprise will continue that sweeping subversion of indigenous traditions, spiritual communities and institutions of faith that was experienced during half a millennium of Western colonial domination.

The severity of the colonial triage, during which the Buddha Sasana in particular suffered near annihilation and Sri Lankan Buddhist culture was gravely debilitated, justifies the continuing attempts of the ancient religious communities, Hindu and Buddhist, to recover from that 'dark age' and strengthen their institutional capacities as well as their social and cultural foundations. This is why the post-colonial Sri Lankan State has deployed its resources in the service of the revival of the Buddha Sasana and plays a role in the nurturing of Hindu culture as well.

The overall recovery of Sri Lankan society from half a millennium of European colonisation, a process yet continuing as we complete our 56th year of Independence, cannot proceed adequately without the genuine revival of the ancient religious traditions. In this light, it is imperative that nothing should be allowed to undermine our ancient spiritual legacy and the socio-cultural communities formed by this legacy.

The resort to violence against one religion that originated in the colonial age, however, is nothing more than a continuation of the barbaric dynamics engendered by colonialism. It only hampers the process of recovery of the Sinhala, Buddhist, Tamil and Hindu cultures.

The desecration of places of worship and the destruction of sacred symbols cannot serve the interests of reviving or sustaining religion and community. It only further undermines civilisation and the religious traditions of the perpetrators. That is the lesson of Bamian.

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