Buddhist intolerance shadows Sri Lanka, says UN expert

Aftermath of Easter Sunday bombings shows failure of the state to protect the innocent against recriminatory violence
Buddhist intolerance shadows Sri Lanka, says UN expert

United Nations resident coordinator Hanaa Singer (left) and its special rapporteur for freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Saheed, at a media conference on Aug. 26 in Sri Lankan capital Colombo. (ucanews.com photo)

ucanews.com reporter, Colombo
Sri Lanka
August 27, 2019
Majority Buddhists in Sri Lanka are creating problems for Muslim and Christian communities seeking to establish mosques and churches, according to a senior United Nations official.

The U.N special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, told an Aug. 26 media conference in capital Colombo that constitutional protection of Buddhism had led to double standards in some parts of the country.

Religious tensions in Sri Lanka are part of a global pattern of growing intolerance, said Shaheed when calling for an end to impunity over religious violence and hate speech.

In the wake of the nation's Easter Sunday bombings by Islamic extremists that claimed more than 250 lives, there had been a failure to stem revenge attacks by Sinhalese Buddhists against Muslims.

Reforms are needed to promote reconciliation, Shaheed said.

He noted that discrimination against Sri Lankan Muslim women wearing hijab head coverings continued even though a ban on the attire in public places was ended with the lifting of a state of emergency.

There had been reports that while the ban was still in place, there had been "draconian" punishments for alleged violations, including imprisonment.

Further, there were concerns about the nation's Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA), including a lack of female judges in so-called Quasi courts in regard to settling marriage disputes.

Shaheed was briefed on the exclusion of the LGBTQI+ community in religious dialogue as they wanted to reconcile their religious identity with their sexuality.

Shaheed pointed out that identifying people according to their race or religion undermined peace building and religious tolerance projects. He also cited complaints against privatized and politicized electronic media for creating negative sentiments against the Muslim community.

The failure of police to protect minorities had fostered a climate of fear among Muslim groups that, if unaddressed, was likely to cause an exodus of Muslims from the country, Shaheed warned.

The special rapporteur called on the state to prosecute people and groups inciting violence, monitor and respond to hate speech and reject efforts to ostracize and stigmatize minority communities as well as vulnerable individuals.

He urged urgent reforms to the education system to prepare children to embrace tolerance among all ethnic, religious and indigenous communities.

Shaheed expressed particular concern over a lack of the protection from attacks against Muslim refugees who had recently entered the country.

Sri Lanka had failed to constitutionally protect freedom of religious publications, he said, adding that hostility to Muslims and non-Roman Catholic Christians was grounded in fears over conversions.

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The special rapporteur was in the nation from Aug. 15-26 and is scheduled to submit recommendations to the U.N. Human Rights Council in March next year.

During his visit, Shaheed met political and spiritual leaders in addition to civil society organizations and academics.

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