Cablegate: Irf Report: Draft 2003 Sri Lanka Submission
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 COLOMBO 001304
DEPARTMENT FOR SA, SA/INS, DRL/IRF(BARNES)
E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PHUM KIRF CE
SUBJECT: IRF report: Draft 2003 Sri Lanka submission
Refs: (A) State 194330
- (B) Colombo-IRF 05/23/03 class email
1. (U) This message is Sensitive but Unclassified --
Please handle accordingly.
2. (SBU) Per the request in Ref A, Mission submits the
draft 2003 International Religious Freedom report for
Sri Lanka. As also requested in Ref A, a Word document
with tracked changes based on the 2002 report has
already been forwarded to the Department (see Ref B).
3. (SBU) The draft 2003 Sri Lankan IRF report follows:
The constitution accords Buddhism the ``foremost
place,'' but it is not recognized as the state religion.
The constitution also provides for the right of members
of other faiths to practice their religion freely, and
the government generally respects this right in
There was no change in the status of respect for
religious freedom during the period covered by this
report. Despite generally amicable relations among
persons of different faiths, there has been occasional
resistance by Buddhists to Christian church activity,
and in particular to the activities of evangelical
Christian denominations. While the courts generally
have upheld the right of evangelical Christian groups to
worship and to construct facilities to house their
congregations, the State limits the number of foreign
religious workers granted temporary residence permits.
The U.S. Government discusses religious freedom issues
with the government in the context of its overall
dialogue and policy of promoting human rights.
SECTION I. RELIGIOUS DEMOGRAPHY
The country has a total area of 25,322 square miles and
a population of approximately 18.5 million. Buddhism,
Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity all are practiced in
the country. Approximately 70 percent of the population
are Buddhist, 15 percent are Hindu, 7 percent are
Muslim, and 8 percent are Christian. There also are
small numbers of Baha'is. Christians tend to be
concentrated in the west, with much of the north almost
exclusively Hindu. The other parts of the country have
a mixture of religions, with Buddhism overwhelmingly
present in the south.
Most members of the majority Sinhalese community are
Theravada Buddhists. Almost all Muslims are Sunnis,
with a small minority of Shi'a, including members of the
Borah community. Roman Catholics account for almost 90
percent of the Christians, with Anglicans and other
mainstream Protestant churches also present in the
cities. The Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's
Witnesses, and the Assemblies of God are present as
well. Evangelical Christian groups have increased in
membership in recent years, although the overall number
of members in these groups still is small.
SECTION II. STATUS OF RELIGIOUS FREEDOM
- Legal/Policy Framework
The constitution gives Buddhism a ``foremost position,''
but it also provides for the right of members of other
faiths to practice their religions freely, and the
government generally respects this right in practice.
There are separate ministries in the government, led by
different ministers, that address religious affairs.
These include: the Ministry of Buddha Sasana
("clergy"); the Ministry of Muslim Religious Affairs;
the Ministry of Hindu Affairs; and the Ministry of
Christian Affairs. Each of these ministries has been
empowered to deal with issues involving the religion in
question. Government assistance includes support for
the upkeep of religious properties and support for
festivals. Some Christian denominations acting in Sri
Lanka have resisted greater government involvement in
their affairs; instead they are registered individually
through acts of Parliament or as corporations under
domestic law. Christian denominations must fill out and
submit forms in order to be recognized as corporations.
This gives them legal standing in Sri Lanka to be
treated as corporate entities in their financial and
real estate transactions.
Despite the constitutional preference for Buddhism,
major religious festivals of all faiths are celebrated
as national holidays.
The government has established councils for interfaith
There is no tax exemption for religious organizations as
such. However, churches and temples are allowed to
register as charitable organizations and therefore are
entitled to some tax relief.
- Restrictions on Religious Freedom
Foreign clergy may work in the country, but for the last
three decades, the government has taken steps to limit
the number of foreign Christian religious workers given
temporary work permits. Permission usually is
restricted to denominations that are registered formally
with the government. Most religious workers in the
country, including most Christian clergy, are Sri Lankan
Some evangelical Christians, who constitute less than 1
percent of the population, have expressed concern that
their efforts at proselytizing often are met with
hostility and harassment by the local Buddhist clergy
and others opposed to their work. They sometimes
complain that the government tacitly condones such
harassment. There is no evidence to support this claim,
however. The Assemblies of God claims that it continues
to face opposition at the local level in many areas but
states that legal action or the threat of legal action
generally has resulted in the church being allowed to
construct facilities for its congregations and conduct
Religion is a mandatory subject in the school
curriculum. Parents and children may choose whether a
child studies Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or
Christianity. Students of minority religions other than
Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity must pursue religious
instruction outside of the public school system. There
are no separate syllabus provided for smaller religions,
such as the Baha'i faith. Religion is taught in schools
from an academic point of view.
Issues related to family law, including divorce, child
custody, and inheritance are adjudicated by the
customary law of each ethnic or religious group. In
1995 the government raised the minimum age of marriage
for women from 12 to 18 years, except in the case of
Muslims, who continue to follow their customary
religious practices. The application of different legal
practices based on membership in a religious or ethnic
group may result in discrimination against women.
From 1983 to 2001, the government (controlled by the
Sinhalese, and predominantly Buddhist, majority) fought
the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), an
insurgent organization fighting for a separate state for
the country's Tamil (and predominantly Hindu) minority.
In 2001, a ceasefire between the government and the LTTE
went into effect and the two parties began a process to
bring peace to the country. Religion did not play a
significant role in the conflict, which essentially is
rooted in linguistic, ethnic, and political differences.
Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians all have been affected
by the conflict, which has claimed more than 60,000
lives. The military had issued warnings through public
radio before commencing major operations, instructing
civilians to congregate at safe zones around churches
and temples; however, in the conflict areas in the
north, the government occasionally has been accused of
bombing and shelling Hindu temples and Christian
churches. In March 1999, government forces recaptured
from the LTTE the town of Madhu in the northwestern area
of the country, the site of a famous Catholic shrine.
Because Madhu was controlled by the LTTE, for several
years Catholics from the south had not been able to make
the pilgrimage to Madhu. After the town was recaptured
by government forces, Catholics were able to resume the
pilgrimage. In November 1999, the LTTE recaptured the
area where the shrine is located and limited access for
a period thereafter. However, during the period covered
by this report, the LTTE generally allowed Catholics
access to the shrine. Additionally, during the period
covered by this report, some Buddhist clergy and
faithful were allowed to visit Buddhist shrines in LTTE-
held areas for the first time in years. The World Hindu
Congress also met in Colombo in May 2003, and was
addressed by the prime minister.
There were no reports of religious prisoners or
The LTTE targeted Buddhist sites, most notably the
historic Dalada Maligawa or ``Temple of the Tooth,'' the
holiest Buddhist shrine in the country, in the town of
Kandy in January 1998. Thirteen worshipers, including
several children, were killed by the bombing. The
government still is attempting to locate and arrest the
LTTE perpetrators of the attack. As a result, the
government has augmented security at a number of
religious sites island-wide, including the Temple of the
Tooth. In contrast to previous years, the LTTE did not
target Buddhist sites during the period covered by this
report; however, the LTTE has not indicated that it will
abstain from attacking such targets in the future.
The LTTE has discriminated against Muslims, and in 1990
expelled some 46,000 Muslim inhabitants -- virtually the
entire Muslim population -- from their homes in 540
areas under LTTE control in the northern part of the
island. Most of these persons remain displaced and live
in or near welfare centers. Although some Muslims
returned to Jaffna in 1997, they did not remain there
due to the continuing threat posed by the LTTE. There
are credible reports that the LTTE has warned thousands
of Muslims displaced from the Mannar area not to return
to their homes until the conflict is over. Despite the
ceasefire and peace process, the LTTE continues to
extort money from Muslim families and businesses in
eastern Sri Lanka. However, it appears that these
attacks by the LTTE are not targeted against persons due
to their religious beliefs, but that they are rather a
part of an overall strategy to clear the north and east
of persons not sympathetic to the cause of an
independent Tamil state.
The LTTE has been accused in the past of using church
and temple compounds, which civilians are instructed by
the government to congregate in the event of
hostilities, as shields for the storage of munitions.
- Forced Religious Conversion
There were no reports of forced religious conversion,
including of minor U.S. citizens who had been abducted
or illegally removed from the United States, or of the
government's refusal to allow such citizens to be
returned to the United States.
SECTION III. SOCIETAL ATTITUDES
Discrimination based on religious differences is much
less common than discrimination based on ethnic group or
caste. In general, the members of the various faiths
tend to be tolerant of each other's religious beliefs.
On occasion, however, evangelical Christians have been
harassed by Buddhist monks for their attempts to convert
Buddhists to Christianity, and they at times complain
that the government tacitly condones such harassment,
although there is no evidence to support this claim (see
There are reports that members of various religious
groups give preference in hiring in the private sector
to members of their own group or denomination. This
practice likely is linked to the country's ongoing
ethnic problems and does not appear to be based
principally on religion. There is no indication of
preference in employment in the public sector on the
basis of religion.
In April 2001, three Sinhalese men attacked a Muslim
cashier. The Muslim community in Mawanella protested
police inaction during and the day after the attack. In
response approximately 2,000 Sinhalese, including
Buddhist monks, rioted in the Muslim section of town and
confronted the Muslim protesters. Two Muslims were
killed, and a number of buildings and vehicles were
destroyed. The Muslim community throughout the western
portion of the country staged a number of protests
claiming the police did nothing to prevent the riot.
Some of the protests resulted in direct clashes between
the Muslim and Sinhalese communities.
In mid-February 1999, a group of religious leaders from
the Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian communities
made a visit to the north central part of the country,
an LTTE controlled area. The purpose of the visit was
to assess the humanitarian situation and to talk with
senior LTTE leaders. The group later met with the
president, but there were few concrete results. Follow-
up meetings with the LTTE were cancelled after
government forces captured additional LTTE-held
territory that year. Since 1999 independent clergy have
maintained intermittent contact with the LTTE.
Religious leaders have continued to serve as unofficial
envoys between the two warring sides.
SECTION IV. U.S. GOVERNMENT POLICY
The U.S. Embassy discusses religious freedom issues with
the government in the context of its overall dialog and
policy of promoting human rights. Representatives of
the Embassy regularly meet with representatives of all
of the country's religious groups to review a wide range
of human rights, ethnic, and religious freedom issues.
The U.S. Ambassador has met with many religious figures,
both in Colombo and in his travels around the country.
Christian bishops and prominent Buddhist monks, as well
as prominent members of the Hindu and Muslim
communities, are in regular contact with the Embassy.
The Embassy has been supportive of efforts by inter-
faith religious leaders to promote a peaceful resolution
of the conflict.
4. (SBU) Mission confirms the statement in Section II
of the above draft that there are no reports of
religious prisoners or detainees.