Sri Lanka: Conversions go south

Sunday Leader, June 5, 2005

Galle, Sri Lanka -- Five months post tsunami. Gone are the hundreds of khaki-clad US Marines, the Pakistani medical camps and the Indian hospital ship glistening in the Galle harbour. Slowly, Galle is recovering and picking its battered, bruised self up.

But a closer look reveals a clear and very distinct change. Different to that we all witnessed in the immediate weeks after the tsunami, but nevertheless a change. The tsunami-affected are not completely alone.

For working with much less hype and noise than the foreign troops are Christian organisations from overseas, busy assisting tsunami victims to get back on their feet and also unfortunately, pursuing their own agendas.

Help when needed

Name boards litter the tsunami ravaged roadways along the southern coastline. Samaritan Austria, the ubiquitous World Vision and many more. Most are doing good work. Much of which work the government has woefully neglected.

As a result, praise for them is high in tsunami welfare camps. "Where the government and our own people have forgotten us, the suddhas still remember. They still help," say grateful inmates.

While the assistance of all these foreign and local missionary groups are more than just necessary, given the government apathy, whether they are here with a more sinister agenda is a question being asked all over Galle, mostly by the Buddhist clergy and Buddhist organisations. Especially after certain incidents unfolded in the area, involving economically stressed, tsunami affected villagers and these Christian missionaries.

Ven. Maligawila Assaji Thero of the Gnanobhasayogashramaya temple in Galle town was a forerunner in the campaign to oust certain Christian operatives engaged in what only can be defined as 'exploitation' of the poor and helpless. According to the Thero, between Rathgama and Ahangama, the two border towns of the Galle District, 117 people have been converted to Christianity following the tsunami.

Ven. Assaji Thero however lays the blame with his fellow clergymen. "It is the duty of Buddhist priests to go up to these victims, talk to them, see how they can ease their burden. It's true, we don't have so much money to dole out, but what the people need right now is to know that they have not been forgotten. It is exactly this that the Christian organisations are so good at," he told The Sunday Leader.

A visit to the welfare camps in the surrounding areas proved the monk's words were true. Feeling abandoned and helpless, the tsunami victims can only see one hand reaching out to them - the hand of the christians. For a people hemmed in from all sides, battling with government inefficiency and their own daily struggle for survival, the assistance from foreign churches is in short - a godsend.

"Two kilos of sugar for a family like ours with six or seven children is a big thing. Even if Pirapaharan gave it, we would have no choice but to take it," says elderly Duslin Wimalasuriya, who has been living in the Walawwatte welfare camp for five months.

Duslin's camp is one of two lucky ones. After the outpouring of aid stopped and supplies were scarce, hers was one camp that did not feel the pinch. The Assembly of God church in Galle has been diligently providing the inmates with supplies each week - a bag containing a kilo of milk powder, sugar, tea, soap, dry fish, Maggi noodles and salmon tins. Every month, the church also ensures that each family living in the welfare camp gets 20 litres of kerosene oil to fuel the little cooker they have each been given.

Deserted tents

The tents at Walawwatte are now deserted. A quick peek inside leaves us stunned. There are no belongings inside. The tents are bare except for a random calendar or abandoned stool. Two women sit in the shade, and walk up to us to tell their story. Homes are being built for almost all 60 families who were resident in the Walawwatte camp.

Everywhere else, inmates are still begging to be granted temporary shelters. But here, in Walawwatte, all the inmates' problems had been solved - to a large extent - by the church.

According to Pastor Jothimuni of AOG, the church was building homes for several inmates in the camps run by them - Walawwatte included. Other Christian organisations have also moved in to help, say inmates of the camp.

It was at this camp that we met a convert. Sunil, 42, found that joining the church was the only way around his problems. The story of Sunil's conversion has spread far and wide, and he has been called a traitor by Buddhist monks and fellow Buddhists alike. But those who know Sunil well, like Noeline Welandaratne, another inmate at the Walawwatte camp, says she completely understands his position. With a child and a massive property battle brewing after the tsunami battered his rented home, Sunil found he had no way out.

"After the tsunami, I became a Christian, yes, and I know that they will look after me. I have to make sure I can survive. If someone is willing to help me, of course I will go to them - there is no question about it, anyone else will do the same thing. None of this would happen if the government did their job. If this goes on, I assure you, there will be many more conversions, it is the most natural thing," says Sunil. He and other inmates claim however that there was never any compulsion from the churches and that there was no distinction when they helped the tsunami-affected. "They don't ask us to come to church, and if we do they won't turn us away either," Sunil said.

While the parcels of rations are more than welcome for inmates, occasionally, says Ven. Assaji Thero, Christian leaflets find their way into the offerings of food.

Angry monk

"Who is this king who died for us?" says one little booklet inmates found inside their packages, printed by the World Missionary Press, Indiana, USA. The leaflets are printed in Sinhalese and slipped into the relief supplies. According to Ven. Assaji Thero, it is the organisations that come from overseas and work through local churches that are engaged in this kind of subtle prosylitising. "When we asked the parish priest concerned why these booklets were inserted, he merely replied that he had nothing to do with them because it was a foreign group that had put the parcels together. I asked him whether his response would be the same if the group had inserted a small package of narcotics into the parcels," says an irate Ven. Assaji Thero.

Ven. Assaji Thero is bristling with anger. According to him, the Christian missionaries working in Galle have far more sinister operations. He told the story of a little girl at a welfare camp in Mahamodara. Her mother had found her lurking around the shrine room in the tent one day after school and kept a close eye on her. Moments later, the mother saw the little girl grab the Buddha statue and run out. Catching up with her, her mother had asked her why she did it, to which the little child responded that a 'sudu' uncle had stopped her on the way back from school, given her a pretty pair of shoes and told her that if she stole the Buddha statue and broke its head and brought it back to him, he would also give her Rs. 5,000. The mother had related the story to Ven. Assaji Thero on one of his visits to the camp, but when he came back to talk to her again one week later, neither the woman nor the child would say a word, he said. "I think they may have been given other things to make sure they keep quiet," said the monk.

Post tsunami, prayer meetings too have begun in private homes. Some homes belonged to staunch Buddhists said the Thero. When news of the meetings spread, posters came up all over the town screaming - 'Stop the religious tsunami!'

With things coming to a head, Ven. Assaji Thero began a sermon campaign at each of the welfare camps around Galle, warning inmates of attempts to win them over by showing them 'goodies' and promising to ease their burden. A few days later, he started receiving threatening phone calls, asking him to stop the sermons. "Some of the calls on my mobile phone came in from a number reading something like 1911 - which I think means it was an overseas call. Others came from call-boxes. Finally, I decided to go to the police and file an entry there."

But when he got to the Galle police station, the monk found another surprise waiting there for him. Police officials at the station told Ven. Assaji Thero that they had received complaints about his sermons. "A particular church group had gone to the police station and asked them to put a stop to the Thero's sermons. But the police had hesitated to mediate.

Bhakthi gee

During Vesak, another incident took place involving World Vision. The organisation hired several lorries, fixed on speakers and went around Galle blaring out bhakthi gee. At the bottom of the banners bearing the World Vision logo, was a line saying that the Vesak Bhakthi Gee was being held under the sponsorship of Ven. Maligawila Assaji Thero.

According to the monk, news of the lorries had come as a shock to him, who apart from being peeved at the fact that the World Vision logo beneath which bhakthi gee was being advertised bore a cross on it, was further incensed by the fact that his name was being used when he knew nothing of the programme. Ven. Assaji Thero believes that this was yet another attempt to discredit him. "If they use my name, Buddhists who know me will think I have been somehow won over. They will think of me as a traitor," he said. Finally, the lorries had been hailed down by the police and the banners were confiscated.

However, World Vision officials in Galle contradict the monk's story, saying that he had been involved in the organising of the Vesak day programme initially, although he decided to back out at the last minute due to pressure from dayakayas and Buddhist organisations who had criticised him for his involvement with a Christian NGO. A World Vision official speaking to The Sunday Leader said that Ven. Assaji Thero had contacted the organisation a few days before Vesak and told them that he could not be a part of the programme.

Hopeless victims

At the Sea Breeze Garden welfare camp in Mahamodara, inmates are badly off. Out of 64 families there, only four have been singled out and given houses, the rest remain largely hopeless. This camp, interestingly, has been overlooked by Christian groups. According to the inmates, this is because once when a parish had brought rations, a few of them had walked up to them and asked them to divide the supplies equally or not bring them in at all, because it was causing bickering inside the small tent city. "They had come once before, dumped all their stuff inside this little shed and gone off and there was a huge scuffle for the items. We didn't want that again," said a woman at the camp. She explained that since that day, no more churches had sent provisions.

Keenly aware of the disparity in treatment for inmates at Sea Breeze Garden as against those at Walawwatte, the camp-dwellers are however unwilling to give up their beliefs. "So many times we have been asked to go over to the other camp because their needs are being looked into. But we don't really want to. After all, just because we are poor, it doesn't mean we have to sell out our religion," says a mechanic staying with his family in one of the stifling tents at Sea Breeze Garden. But they are far from being judgmental. "You can't argue with hunger. They saw no other choice," said the mechanic, adding that 14 families according to news he got had been converted at the Walawwatte camp.

Sunil and Noeline agree. Instead of insulting him for becoming a Christian, the monks in the area would have done better to come up to him, even at this late stage and ask him what made him convert, says Sunil. "Which temple helped us?" he says. According to Sunil, if not for the Christian organisations and the work they are doing, the government would be even more at sea today. And, he warns, if government apathy continues, more and more conversions will follow in the coming months.

Teaching nations

At one Christian church in Galle, a massive pennant hanging near the podium bears the words "The Last Great Order" and quotes from the Book of Matthew, Chapter 28, verses 19-20. "Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you and lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." Whether the command can be interpreted by Christian missionaries to justify converting the completely helpless and weak by giving them hope, not of eternal life, but a more viable mortal one is debatable. Ven. Assaji Thero believes that in this situation, even if people wanted to convert, they should not be allowed to because their spiritual decisions at this time cannot be based on true convictions.

Another inmate at Walawwatte who swears that no matter who says what he will not refuse aid from anyone because beggars can't be choosers sums it up - "After all, even to practice a religion, first you have to be alive. If they promise us a chance to survive, of course we will take it."

All dressed in yellow...

The scientologists were also in Galle recently, conducting nerve therapy for tsunami survivors and the general public. The massage seminars were held at the Galle Municipal Council Grounds and were very popular. Scientologists, attired in yellow T-shirts performed massages on people and claimed this was an aid to their complete recovery from the trauma and stress of the tsunami.

Galle Mayor, Arif Ismail Mohammed said the group was initially performing their massages at the Mahagoda Temple in Magalle. They were at the municipal grounds for two weeks, he said adding that the Sri Lanka Navy had provided security for the sessions. According to Mohammed, many Catholic and Christian priests also attended the seminars. However, the Mayor maintained that the group had no religious face.

The seemingly innocuous 'therapy' sessions however, soon earned the ire of the general public and the Buddhist monks. A vendor at the Galle Town Fish Market told The Sunday Leader that he knew someone who went for this massage and came back with a strange story. "He said that while the massage was being given, they began to tell him things and ask him questions. He had realised then that this was an attempt to tell him about Christianity. They were picking and choosing who to approach," said the fish vendor.

Scientologists have been banned in Germany and several other countries. Primarily American, it is alleged they had attempted to put down roots in Germany by marrying German women. In Sri Lanka, The Sunday Leader learns, Scientologists, attired in yellow, in the aftermath of the tsunami had walked into villages allegedly asking for tsunami widows offering marriage. When the group had walked into one such southern village, many widows had allegedly been thrilled with the idea, since they thought it would bring them prosperity and even American residency.

Believed to now be the fastest growing religious movement on earth, Scientology has become a firmly established and active force advocating positive change in the world.

Scientology was founded by an American philosopher, L. Ron Hubbard. The group claims to have more than 3,200 churches, missions and groups in 154 countries.

Americans travelling to Great Britain to practice "Scientology," have been barred by the British Health Ministry. Health Minister Kenneth Robinson has reportedly declared that "scientology is socially harmful."  The government's action was taken on the basis of complaints - some of them raised in parliament - about teachings of the group.

Publications of the group speak of its "message of total freedom for all mankind," and it calls itself the "most widespread self-betterment movement on earth today."

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