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Easter attacks increased hostility to Muslims in Sri Lanka

Muslims in Sri Lanka have consistently faced discrimination and violence since 2013, says new Amnesty report

UCA News reporter

UCA News reporter

Published: October 20, 2021 06:54 AM GMT

Updated: October 20, 2021 07:08 AM GMT

Easter attacks increased hostility to Muslims in Sri Lanka

The remains of a Muslim settlement in Sri Lanka following anti-Muslim violence. (Photo: Amnesty International)

Hostility toward Muslims has increased in Sri Lanka after the Easter bomb attacks, Amnesty International said in a new report urging authorities to break the alarming trend and hold perpetrators accountable.

Sri Lanka's government must bring an end to consistent discrimination, harassment and violence against the Muslim community and eliminate state policies that explicitly target the minority group, the global rights watchdog said.

It published the report titled From Burning Houses to Burning Bodies: Anti-Muslim Harassment, Discrimination and Violence in Sri Lanka on Oct. 17.

The report documents the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka since 2013 laced with an upsurge in Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, which saw discrimination against Muslims constantly spiral, from a series of mob attacks committed with impunity to the government’s discriminatory policies including forced cremation of Muslim Covid-19 victims.

The current proposals to ban both the niqab (face veil) and madrasas (religious schools) are the latest cases of the state’s discriminatory policies against the Muslim community, it noted.

“While anti-Muslim sentiment in Sri Lanka is nothing new, the situation has regressed sharply in recent years. Incidents of violence against Muslims, committed with the tacit approval of the authorities, have occurred with alarming frequency. This has been accompanied by the adoption by the current government of rhetoric and policies that have been openly hostile to Muslims,” said Kyle Ward, Amnesty International's deputy secretary-general.

The hostility started in 2013 with Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups successfully carrying out lobbying for an anti-halal campaign

“The Sri Lankan authorities must break this alarming trend and uphold their duty to protect Muslims from further attacks, hold perpetrators accountable and end the use of government policies to target, harass and discriminate against the Muslim community.” 

Since the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings by an Islamist group that left 269 people dead, hostility toward Muslims has markedly increased. Authorities arbitrarily arrested hundreds of Muslims as part of emergency measures.

On May 13 that year, mob attacks targeted Muslims in several towns in North Western Province during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, while mosques across the country were also attacked and a spate of anti-Islam hate speech posts flooded social media.

The hostility started in 2013 with Sinhala-Buddhist nationalist groups successfully carrying out lobbying for an anti-halal campaign, which forced the government to stop halal certification of food that allowed Muslims to consume food in accordance with Islamic scripture and customs.

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This campaign became a trigger for a series of attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses. The impunity for attackers justified the violence and encouraged more to repeat the crime with impunity.

The next year, anti-Muslim riots erupted in the southern coastal town of Aluthgama following a rally by a Sinhala Buddhist nationalist group. The authorities failed to deliver justice to the victims and the perpetrators enjoyed impunity.

In 2017, mob violence against Muslims flared up in the southern coastal town of Ginthota, while similar violence erupted in Digana and Ampara towns in the central and eastern provinces in 2018. Victims and witnesses alleged that law enforcers didn’t act properly to prevent violence.

Sri Lanka’s current government has also made Muslims scapegoats to deflect public attention from political and economic issues. The government implemented a cremation policy for Covid-19 victims despite cremation being forbidden in Islam. The policy had no scientific basis for the claims that burying bodies would spread the disease.

From anti-terrorism laws and forced cremations to niqabs and madrasas, the Sri Lankan government has pursued a blatantly discriminatory policy agenda against Muslims

The cremation policy was reversed amid international pressure, but the government moved ahead with a proposal to ban the niqab and madrasas, which violates freedom of religion guaranteed by Sri Lanka’s constitution and international human rights law.

Meanwhile, the authorities have exploited existing legislation, including the Prevention of Terrorism Act, to target and detain Muslims without charge.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights Act, which prohibits the propagation of racial or religious hatred amounting to incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence, has also been misused to target individuals including Hejaaz Hizbullah, a lawyer and activist, and Ahnaf Jazeem, a poet and teacher.

“From anti-terrorism laws and forced cremations to niqabs and madrasas, the Sri Lankan government has pursued a blatantly discriminatory policy agenda against Muslims. We urge the authorities to reconsider the proposals currently under consideration, and for the international community to monitor and take measures to ensure the freedom and protection of minority communities in Sri Lanka,” said Amnesty's Ward.

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