“Saffron terror” in the form of an ethno religious fascist organization called “Hela Bodu Pawura”descended upon the coastal town of Hikkaduwa in Sri Lanka’s southern province on Sunday January 12th 2014!
Mobs led by Buddhist priests launched attacks on two christian churches while Sunday worship was in progress demanding that the places of Christian worship should be closed down as they were unauthorised. One was an Assemblies of God church and the other the Calvary free church.The Police remained spectators being either unable or unwilling to prevent or stop the attacks on both churches.
Hikkaduwa situated 112 km to the south of Colombo and 17 km to the north-west of Galle is a popular tourist destination with beautiful beaches and coral reefs.It has been featured on Anthony Bourdain’s TV show “No reservations”.It is a predominantly Buddhist area with a tiny Christian population consisting mainly of new converts.
The Christian population had increased in numbers after the Tsunami of December 26th 2004 when Hikkaduwa and many other places in the south were engulfed by waves and underwent much loss of human life and destruction.Several Christian churches and groups engaged in relief and rehabilitation in Hikkaduwa thus paving the way for greater evangelization. Apart from being a tourist resort Hikkaduwa is also a tailoring centre now with a large number of well-trained,self –employed tailors many of whom are Christians.
Though the Buddhist and Christian communities at large had been generally living in peace and harmony there have been attempts in recent times to spread religious hatred and ill-will.Anti-Christian campaigns have been whipped up from time to time by ethno religious fascist organizations claiming to represent Buddhists. Members of both the Buddhist clergy and laity have been involved in the protest campaigns though visible leadership is provided by Buddhist monks.
Hikkaduwa witnessed anti-christian attacks even on Christmas eve last year.On December 24th 2013 the Assemblies of God Church in Hikkaduwa was attacked by a group of unidentified assailants throwing fire crackers into the church premises and into the pastors residence adjoining the church.At approximately at 11.30p.m., another group of unidentified assailants began to hurl stones at the Light House Church in Hikkaduwa. Some minor damage was reported with glass windows being shattered by the stones.Both pastors lodged complaints in their respective area police stations but no action has been taken to date.
In the case of the recent attacks the Assemblies of God church that was targeted on December 24th has been attacked again.According to reports a mob of over 250 persons led by around 30 saffron clad Buddhist monks had attacked at first the Assemblies of God (AOG) Church on Baddegama road in Hikkaduwa after the Sunday morning service had begun. The second attack by elements of the same mob was on the Calvary Free Church located at No 58 Amarasena mawatte in Hikkaduwa.The Sunday morning service was about to conclude at the Calvary church when the attack began.
Apparently the Police had prior information on Saturday January 11th that both churches were going to be targeted the following day. Police had informed the AOG church and Calvary free church pastors of the possibility of an attack whereupon the pastors had requested Police protection. Hikkaduwa ,Inspector of Police Madanayake had obliged. It was on the guarantee of safety given by the Police that the pastors went ahead with the sunday services as usual.Police contingents were deployed at the church premises on Sunday.Over 100 people participated in both the AOG church and Calvary church services.
At about 10 am on Sunday morning a mob of over 250 persons inclusive of about 30 Buddhist monks marched towards the church on Baddegama road with placards and banners chanting anti-christian slogans. A three-wheeler equipped with a public address system blared forth anti-christian sentiments and called upon the Buddhists to join their march aimed at closing down two “Illegal”churches. When they tried to enter Church premises the Police tried to restrain the mob.The gates of the church compound were shut by the Police who refused to let the mob go inside.A heated argument between some of the saffron clad ring leaders and Police ensued.Though the congregation was terrified the church service went on.
Angered members of the mob then began throwing stones at the church.Some members of the mob led by some of the younger Buddhist monks then circumvented the Police by going around the church and then entered the church from the back.Thereafter the mob went on the rampage damaging windows,furniture and equipment.Hymnals,prayer books and bibles were ripped into shreds. The congregation which had sought refuge in the inner rooms was not harmed as the Police formed a cordon and blocked the mob from physically attacking the worshippers.
Obscenities were uttered against members of the congregation.The AOG pastor Chinthaka Prasanna was accosted by a Buddhist monk who was one of the mob leaders and scolded in raw filthy language most unbecoming of a venerable member of the Maha sanga. The Buddhist Monk had uttered death threats at the Christian pastor warning him that the church had to be shut down or else the pastor would face death.
Sections of the mob had then moved towards the Calvary Free church on Amarasena mawatte a short distance away.The Sunday service was about to conclude when the mob invaded the premises.However additional Police personnel who converged at the AOG church premises after the attack began were also rapidly re-deployed at the Calvary church in addition to those already stationed there.
The re-inforced Police succeeded in preventing the mob from storming into the Calvary church and brought about a stand-off situation where the Christian congregation numbering a little over a hundred remained inside in relative safety while Police tried to reason out with the mob and church leaders.According to members of the congregation they were virtually “marooned” for some time while the hostile mob ranted and railed outside and also threw stones.Finally the Police managed to persuade the pastor and lay Christian leaders to suspend the service and depart with Police protection.
After the congregation dispersed the mob entered the church and commenced a destructive spree. Pews, chairs, tables,light,windows and musical instruments etc were damaged . Hymn books,prayer books and bibles were torn into shreds and a bonfire was made.Attempts to burn down the church completely was prevented by the Police.
Extensive damage to Church property has been recorded.Preliminary assessments place the damage incurred at the Assemblies of Church premises as over 500,000 rupees and estimate the damage at the Calvary Free church as between 15 to 20 Lakhs of rupees.Both churches have been in existence for over a decade. The AOG church was established in 1997 and the Calvary free church in 2002.It is learnt that a vast majority of the congregations under threat at both churches comprised women and children.
Most of the anti-christian violence was unleashed young members of the Buddhist clergy and by youths wearing trousers and tee-shirts. A number of the Buddhist monks seemed to be novices in their teens. The so called protest demonstration was organized by a hitherto unheard of Ethno religious fascist outfit calling itself the “Hela Bodu Pawura”.Several monks from Hikkaduwa were also involved in the attack.At least 10 monks and 15 civilians involved in the attack have been identified by Church circles.
After the twin attacks on churches the “Hela Bodu Pawura”Saffron terrorists then conducted a protest demonstration blocking traffic on the main Colombo-Galle highway.The demonstrators demanded that the churches be demolished in terms of a circular issued by the Buddha Sasana ministry in 2008. They claimed that both churches were functioning without proper authorisation.
The protest demonstration was called off and the mob dispersed only after senior Police officials assured the monks leaders that prayers at the churches would be stopped.Galle DIG of Police Gamini Maturata was personally present at the trouble spot and played a huge role in resolving the crisis.It is learnt that the Police had without consulting the church leaders informed the Buddhist protesters that both churches would be closed down for 2 weeks.
Police however did not arrest or try to arrest any member of the mob though it was blatantly clear that a number of laws were being flagrantly violated in full view of high ranking Police officials.It is widely believed that the hands of the Police are tied in such incidents as the Buddhist extremist mobs enjoy the patronage and protection of the highest in the land.
The Assemblies of God Church, in a statement, said the Police were ineffective in controlling the mob and the mobs effectively trapped the congregation within the Church buildings.” Our lawyers are now meeting with the Police. As of now, the immediate situation has been diffused but there is still some tension in the area. Although many of the details are unclear, it is clear that a mob attacked the Churches while they were engaged in religious worship, which is a violation in terms of the Penal Code. The Police were also unable to control the mob.”
Hikkaduwa Police OIC, Mandanayake, told the media , “There was an incident including an attack, where property, goods and equipment were damaged.”The Police Media Unit added that, “Stones had been thrown at the two churches and while windows were broken and a window in a cupboard was broken, the roofs were damaged as a result of the forceful impact of heavy rocks and stones. A fence too was damaged. No arrests have yet been made.”
It is learnt that lawyers representing Christian organizations are currently engaged in discussions with the Police over the Hikkaduwa attacks.The Police are expected to file a report on the incidents to courts in due course.It is expected that the Police would request a restraining order on the churches from conducting worship instead of naming suspects involved in the attacks and seeking arrest or detention orders.
DBS Jeyaraj can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org