Civic rights groups have challenged a threat made by a Sri Lankan minister against a lawyer who spoke out against the targeting of evangelical Christians on the island nation. Over 200 activists and civic groups petitioned the government over Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapakse's June 17 statement threatening to disbar lawyer Lakshan Dias who made televised comments three days earlier. On the Derana Television channel, Dias spoke out against attacks on evangelical Christians in the Buddhist-majority nation. He said there have been nearly 200 cases of religious violence against Christian places of worship and clergy, including mobs interrupting church services. Rajapaksa insisted that Dias apologize for such comments within 24 hours or face disbarment. In response, Catholic priests and nuns joined activists and civic groups condemning Rajapaksa's threat, signing the petition that urges the government to safeguard Dias' rights and safety. "We, as a civil society, view the targeting of Dias as an attempt to silence human rights activism," said part of the petition. Dias himself, condemned the minister's action. "This is utterly reprehensible, unprecedented and a serious threat to me as a professional," said Dias. Priest and rights activist Father Sarath Iddamalgoda said he supports Dias who has only spoken the truth. "Only an authoritarian dictator would dare to restrict the freedom of expression. The freedom of expression has been guaranteed to us by the constitution of our country," said Father Iddamalgoda. "How can a minister interfere with that?" The petition said the statistics presented by Dias on television were based on information documented by the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka which included police complaints and case numbers. "I appreciate and congratulate Dias for what he has been doing all these years," said Father Iddamalgoda about Dias' work defending evangelical Christians. "I would question the dubious role of the minister of justice who had observed silence up to now about the attacks on these evangelicals," he said. Free Media Movement, a media watchdog organization, also condemned the minister's statement. "The justice minister's behavior is a menace to the rule of law and the democracy of the country," said C. Dodawatta, convener of the group in a statement on June 21. Sri Lanka is a predominantly Buddhist nation with a diverse group of minority communities including Tamils, Muslims, Christians and the Burgher people, an Eurasian ethnic group.
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Approximately 70 percent of the island nation's population of 21 million are Buddhist, 15 percent Hindu, 8 percent Christian and 9 percent Muslim. A majority of Buddhists are ethnic Sinhalese who make up most of the population. Hindus are mostly from the Tamil ethnic minority. Christians come from the Sinhalese, Tamil and Burgher communities.