Buddhists decry drift towards multi-faith state in Sri Lanka

By Janaka Perera, The Asian Tribune, Feb 14, 2011

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- A resolution vehemently condemning government’s nonchalance in retaining Sri Lanka’s Buddhist image was unanimously adopted at a largely attended meeting held at the All Ceylon Buddhist Congress Hall, Colombo on February 11. The issue is a covert move by the Prime Minister to promote a multi-religious program on the pretext of commemorating the 2600th Sambuddhathva Jayanthi (Anniversary of the of Siddhartha Gauthama’s attainment of Buddhahood).in May, 2011.

The Joint Committee of Buddhist Organisations (JCBO) organized the meeting. The speakers were President’s Counsel Manohara De Silva, Attorney Dr. Harischandra Wijetunge, Venerable Medagama Dhammananda, Venerable Erawwala Sudhamma, Venerable Puliyadde Sudhamma and Dr. Gunadasa Amarasekera. Venerable Dodampahala Suguna Thera presided

The audience strongly expressed its apprehension over the course of action the Prime Minister’s office is contemplating to mark the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi celebrations in a country where around 70 percent are Buddhist. They expressed their suspicions of an anti-Buddhist conspiracy behind this move to make a ‘religious’ pickle out of a great Buddhist event. The participants wanted to know where in the world non-Buddhists or Buddhists had turned an important event concerning their religion into a multi-religious affair.

Blasting the PM’s move, Manohara de Silva categorically said the attempt to revise the 20 point of plan of action - which the Sri Sambuddhatva Jayanthi Secretariat and the Religious Affairs Ministry had originally drawn up in 2009 - is a gross violation of article 9 of the Constitution, under which the government is duty-bound to foster Buddhism and give it the foremost place while allowing non-Buddhists to freely practise their religions. .

He recalled that when it was decided to give prominence to Buddhism under the 1972 Constitution, its architect, veteran lawyer Dr. Colvin R. de Silva was asked to give reasons for this decision. Dr. Colvin R. de Silva’s answer was that Buddhism is the religion of the majority of the country’s citizens, whereas the status of other religions was not so

Manohora De Silva reminded the audience that Buddhists had suffered under more than four centuries of European colonialism. Now they were facing what in legal terms means reverse discrimination in a possible attempt towards secularisation that would give vested interests a grand opportunity to undermine Buddhism. He warned that today Buddhists were at the cross roads concerning the survival of their religion. An ominous sign, he said, was Cardinal Malcolm Ranjit attributing the country’s ills to the prominence given to Sinhala language and Buddhism (in the 1972 Constitution).

Drawing attention to the call for legal measures to prevent unethical conversions in the original 20-point plan De Silva said that this had been twisted to mean that awareness should be built among Buddhists to prevent them from being converted to other religions. The question was whether this distortion was done under pressure from the U.S. which was opposed to the introduction and enforcement of laws against unethical conversions (euphemistically called religious freedom by proselytisers).

The cat has jumped out of the bag with the proposal for the setting up of Hindu, Christian and Islamic Committees under the revised plan of action to promote what is really a covert ‘Multi Religious Jayanthi’ that will replace the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi. Manohara De Silva demanded to know why these proposed committees for non-Buddhists comprised not only members of the clergy but also politicians, provincial council secretaries, district secretaries, Education Department officers, agricultural research officers, and agrarian officers among others. He asked whether all this was necessary to build religious good will among Buddhists and non-Buddhists.

The real motive he said is quite different. So far those engaging in unethical conversions have had no state power. They often faced risks because their aggressive evangelising provoked non-Christians into committing acts of violence against the proselytisers. But this new mechanism would give the latter legal protection for their dubious activities since these Christian evangelical sects - unlike Buddhist and Hindu organisations - get ample foreign funds which could be used for unethical conversions on the pretext of charity especially in poverty-stricken areas under the committees’ jurisdiction. In addition government officials appointed to these committees would be in a position to get funds channelled through them from the UNDP and other international organisations. These funds too could be easily used for unethical religious purposes in the midst of other work. It means concerned Buddhists who want to prevent evangelists targeting poor and uneducated Buddhists and their children would have no legal recourse.

Manohara De Silva noted that the revised plan of action published in August 2010 has been titled ‘Island-wide and International Program’ (Deepa Vyaptha saha Jaathyanthara Weda Satahana). Considering foreign-funded Christian evangelism in Sri Lanka, he said, the program’s title should be changed instead to ‘International and Island wide program’ since the motive is to see the gradual demise of Buddhism in Sri Lanka. De Silva stressed this was the last opportunity for Buddhists to campaign against this menace. He appealed to the government not to leave room for this crime to be committed.

Venerable Erawwala Sudhamma Thera expressed regret that some Buddhist prelates too had fallen in line with the program to undermine Sambuddhatva Jayanthi in the name of building religious harmony. He said that it was not worth talking about Buddhist monks who laid red carpets to welcome Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith.

Ven. Medagama Dhammanda Thera warned that today religious terrorism had replaced LTTE terrorism which some power-hungry Tamil politicians and anti-Buddhist clerics had nurtured with international support. He said that retribution had come to business magnate Lalith Kothalawala who had inserted advertisements with a message from Bishop Oswald Gomis titled ‘Christians Awake’ during the Presidential Election Campaign 2005 fearing that a UNP defeat would give more strength to Buddhists. Ven. Dhammanda scoffed at claims that the revised ‘Sambuddha Jayanthi’ plan was aimed at strengthening religious amity as it existed in the past. He asked whether there was really such harmony during colonial times and in the immediate post-independence years when every attempt had been made to marginalise Buddhists and eventually make Buddhism disappear from Sri Lanka.

His remarks brought to mind the late Rt. Rev. Lakdasa De Mel’s statement (made on the day he was elevated to the dignity of Assistant Bishop of the Anglican Church): “The task of the Church in Ceylon will not be finished till the remaining 90 percent of the population, who are not Christians, are converted.”

Ven. Dhammanda wondered why some people were concerned about several Buddhist temples that had come up in the North. But they had not asked how many Christian Churches had come up there. As far as he knew there were around 150 churches there. The most crucial issue he said was these Christian organisations were responsible for spreading disharmony among Tamils and Sinhalas. He asked whether a Christian Church would accommodate Hindu gods.

Buddhists temples in the North and South had shrines for Hindu deities thus greatly helping to build religious harmony among Sinhalas and Tamils, the majority of whom are Hindus. One way of undermining this amity was to convert Hindus to Christianity. The late T. Maheswaran MP was one of the Hindu Tamils who had realised the threat Christian evangelism posed to Hinduism.

The Ven. Dhammananda vowed that he would never allow State-sanctioned non-Buddhist religious committees to be set up in the Kandy District under the revised, so-called Sambuddhatva Jayanthi program.

Almost every Buddhist monk who addressed the meeting condemned the actions of the Ven. Bellanwila Wimalarathana of the Bellanwila Raja Maha Vihara, contrasting his views today with those which he had expressed some years back. They also said that three Buddhist monks who visited the Vatican degraded their monk hood by wearing crosses in order to get an audience with the Pope.

One of the speakers said that the U.S. which was supposed to be a secular state, had the words ‘In God We Trust’ in the dollar note, proving that secularism cannot change the religious character of a society.

The mood of the audience clearly gave the feeling that the government would be making a great mistake if it goes ahead with the revised plan to mark the Sambuddhatva Jayanthi. Cabinet members who give their assent to this covert multi-religious plan would be surely courting trouble in predominantly Buddhist areas. Unless the President takes serious note of this and nip it in the bud the consequences would be disastrous for Buddhists.