International Centre for Ethnic Studies
& Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka Colombo, 2018
© 2018 International Centre for Ethnic Studies and Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education
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Copyright to this publication belongs to the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) and Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education. Any part of this book may be reproduced with due acknowledgement to the authors and the publishers. The interpretations and conclusions expressed in the study are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the ICES, Equitas or the donor. This publication is made possible with the financial support of the Government of Canada provided through Global Affairs Canada

Nadine Vanniasinkam
Kasun Pathiraja
Mohamed Faslan and
Dinushka Jayawickreme1
International Centre for Ethnic Studies
& Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education
1 Nadine Vanniasinkam is a researcher at the International Centre for Ethnic Studies. Kasun Pathiraja is a Senior Programme Coordinator at ICES. Mohamed Faslan is a lecturer at the Department of Political Science at the University of Colombo. Dinushka Jayawickreme was a programme officer at ICES and is currently freelancing

This study stems from a conflict mapping exercise undertaken by the International Centre for Ethnic
Studies and Equitas – International Centre for Human Rights Education for the designing of a training module on conflict mitigation through a human rights-based approach. The study is written by Nadine
Vanniasinkam and the design and collection of qualitative data were conducted by a research team comprising Nadine Vanniasinkam, Mohamed Faslan, Kasun Pathiraja, and Dinushka Jayawickreme.
The team is grateful to all the respondents for their willingness to share their views and experiences, to colleagues in the four districts for assisting with organising meetings, to Natasha Karunaratne for
designing the cover page, to Sharni Jayawardena for editing and proofreading the study and to Dr Mario Gomez, Ms Milagros Arguelles, Dr Nireka Weeratunge, Dr Benjamin Schonthal, Dr Neil de
Votta, Kasun Pathiraja and Mohamed Faslan for graciously devoting time to reviewing drafts and providing constructive feedback.

Table of Contents

  1. ’Location’ – An Overview of the Four Districts
  2. Domains of Contestation, Agents and Enabling Conditions of Inter-religious Conflict
    2.1. Contestations Over Sacred Space and Symbols
    2.1.1. Buddhicization of Tamil / Hindu Spaces: New Significations Post War
    2.1.2. Identity and Dominance through Increasing Visibility: The Competitive
    Installation of Religious Statues
    2.2. Growth of Extremism, Hate Speech, Mistrust and the Role of
    Social Media
    2.3. Evangelism, Inter-marriage, and Unethical Conversions
    2.4. Caste Discrimination and Inequalities
    2.5. Territorial Expansion: Land as a Symbol of Ethno-religious Dominance
    2.6. Land and Entitlement: Post-war Considerations
    2.7. Access to Employment and State Benefits: Demands for Equality
    2.8. Institutionalized Racism and Seizure of Institutions Belonging to Minority
    2.9. Economics and Business Rivalry
  3. Inter-religious Conflict: A District-based Analysis
    3.1. Mannar
    3.2. Jaffna
    3.3. Ampara
    3.4. Matara
  4. Conflict Mitigation Strategies in Addressing Inter-religious Conflict and the Role of
    Inter-religious Committees
    4.1. Mannar
  5. Women and Inter-religious Conflict: Participation and Roles
  6. x
    4.1. x
    4.2. Jaffna
    4.3. Ampara
    4.4. Matara
  7. Women and Inter-religious Conflict: Participation and Roles
    5.1. Mannar
    5.2. Jaffna
    5.3. Ampara
    5.4. Matara
  8. Conclusion
    Appendix A: The Research Sample

Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
Religion and ethnicity are inextricable from the popular and political imagination of the Sri Lankan “Self” and pervade the nation’s discourses on nationalism, self-determination, sovereignty, and privilege. The centrality of religion and ethnicity in the formation of the Sri Lankan nation-state, postindependence, is evident in the construction of the nation’s identity as Sinhala Buddhist and the privileging of Buddhism and the subsequent guaranteeing of protection to the Buddha Sasana under the Constitution which has cemented an ethos of Sinhala Buddhist majoritarianism in the country. It is unsurprising, therefore, that religion and ethnicity are bases for mobilization and conflict in a country which comprises three other ethnoreligious minorities – the Tamils, Muslims, and Upcountry Tamils who follow Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam.
At a national level, the polarization between the Sinhala majority and Tamil and Muslim minority ethnoreligious communities in Sri Lanka was further widened in the 1950s due to linguistic nationalism and the Sinhala Only language policy which has been deemed as the root of the ethnic war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL) and which was concluded militarily in 2009. Post-2009, ethnoreligious fissures were further deepened with the state-sanctioned rise of religious nationalism and extremist Buddhist groups resulting in hate speech and riots against the Muslim minority and attacks against Christian and Hindu places of worship. This does not mean that religious tensions and violence did not exist in Sri Lanka’s pre-war period. Religion has, throughout the country’s colonial and post-independence history, been a locus for conflict and violence. From the massacre of Tamil Catholics in Mannar in the 16th Century by the Hindu King Cankili VI, to the anti-Catholic riot in 1883, the anti-Muslim riot in 1915, to postindependence and post-war violence against religious minorities, particularly the pogrom against Tamils in 1983 and the more recent spate of attacks against the Muslim community,2 religion and religious identity has consistently been (employed as) a spur to incite conflict and exert (political) dominance.
Political scientists and historians attribute ethnoreligious violence to the machinations of larger political actors who, in their pursuit to outbid each other, manipulate ethnicity and/or language and/or religion for personal/party political gain (De Votta 2004 and 2018; Dewasiri 2017). Many studies have also acknowledged and/or examined the nexus between ethnicity, religion, identity, and politics in relation to religious violence in Sri Lanka (Tilakaratne 2015; Gunatilaka 2015 and 2018; Herath and
Rambukwella 2015; Dewasiri 2017; De Votta,2018). Furthermore, much of this recent studies3 have (rightly) privileged Buddhist-Muslim relations due to increased campaigns, hate speech, violence and riots against the Muslim community post-2009 with tacit sanction of the state. In fact, the study of Buddhist-Muslim relations continues to be relevant in the light of the most recent anti-Muslim riots in Ampara and Kandy in February and March 2018, both stemming from personal disputes which
were manipulated for political gain. These incidents reveal that ethnic and religious difference continues to be ideological bases for inciting violence and conflict in Sri Lanka.
2 See ‘Hate Campaigns and Attacks against the Muslims in Recent Sri Lanka’ by Razick et al.
3 Many ethnoreligious studies focused on Sinhala Buddhist and Tamil Hindu/Catholic relations in the period leading to the ethnic war and during the war from 1983-2009 such as the work of Gananath Obeysekere, R.A.L.H. Tambiah,
Jonathan Spencer and Patrick Peebles.


However, such macro, panoramic approaches to analysing ethnoreligious relations and conflict in Sri Lanka tend to represent and examine the perspectives and trajectories of political elites (mobilizers),
underplaying the importance and role of the masses (the mobilized) in shaping inter-religious relations.
They also tend to fall into the trap of binaries, whereby ethnoreligious relations are often examined in relation to the Sinhala-Tamil and/or the Buddhist-Muslim dichotomies, undermining other relational configurations between and among ethnoreligious groups in Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the
the metanarrative of ethnoreligious conflict as employing and being informed by religion and religious ideology (Holt 2015), politically motivated and linked to the larger majoritarian national consciousness
and which portrays the Sri Lankan polity as pawns in a larger political game, while important and relevant also promotes a limiting understanding of Sri Lanka as a homogeneous landscape with similar
minority-majority politics at play.
This paper adopts the position that ethnoreligious relations in Sri Lanka are also spatially determined (Hasbullah and Korf 2012; Mayer 2013; Shepardson 2014; Spencer et al. 2015) and manifest distinctively in its different regions which vary historically, demographically, politically, socially, culturally, and geographically, not merely in terms of the northern-southern divide, but also within the different districts of the north and south. In support of this argument, Appadurai (1998) states that
“it remains difficult to relate macro processes to the micro-events that characterize ethnic violence”
(p. 3). Highlighting this fact, Nagaraj and Haniffa (2017) argue for more nuanced analyses of ethnoreligious relations that move beyond preoccupations with the interplay of ethnicity and identity at
the national level and examine micro “political and economic geographies” (p. 41) that shape ethnoreligious relations. Gunatillaka (2018) also tacitly supports this localized approach to analysing interreligious conflict and relations when he observes that “specific local contexts and dynamics contribute heavily towards the occurrence and escalation of [inter-religious] violence” (p. 39). Therefore, considerations of the intersections of space and context, which are shaped by the historical, social,
cultural, economic, religious, and the political, are integral to a nuanced understanding of interreligious relations and conflict.
As already mentioned above, several studies have approached the analysis of inter-religious relations and conflict from the perspective of ethnicity, identity, and political hegemony. Others, like Stark and Finke (2000), have propounded a purely economic reading of religious economies within a marketplace where the rules of demand and supply operate. Others, as developed by the Religious Rivalries Seminar conducted by the Canadian Society for Biblical Studies, posit more open models which view the inter-relation between religions in the same environment or marketplace in terms of coexistence, cooperation, competition and conflict (Mayer 2013). Inter-religious relations, however, are not so neat and clear-cut due to the blurred distinctions and overlap between definitions of cooperation and competition and competition and conflict (also demonstrated in Faslan and Vanniasinkam, 2015). Mayer (2013) proposes an inclusive and open framework for analysing interreligious conflict which, for the purposes of this study, is useful to systematically examine intersecting factors which impact inter-religious relations. She states that “religious conflict can be said to occur when the following conditions are satisfied:
(1). two or more collective agents are involved and the agents derive, for example, from separate religions, separate factions of the same religion, from within the same faction in the same religion, and/or secular authority;
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
(2). a domain – e.g., ideology/morality, power, personality, space/place, group identity – is contested, singly or in combination
(3). there are enabling conditions – e.g., political, social, economic, cultural and psychological; and
(4). religion is involved (the degree to which it is involved is deemed irrelevant).”
(p. 5).
In keeping with the aim for a localized understanding of inter-religious relations, alternative and complementary to macro narratives, this study examines and compares the agents, domains, and enabling conditions within and across four districts in Sri Lanka – Mannar and Jaffna in the Northern Province, Ampara in the Eastern Province, and Matara in the Southern Province. The districts are unique in a context whereby each comprises a different religious majority (Catholics in Mannar, Hindus
in Jaffna, Muslims in Ampara and Buddhists in Matara). Hence, the study moves away from a focus solely on the recent dichotomies of Buddhist-Muslim relations and instead attempts a nuanced, gendered and spatial understanding of the nature of inter-religious relations among the four main religious communities in Sri Lanka – Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims – to arrive at a deeper understanding of the ways in which ethnoreligious relations and conflict manifest and play out in
different socio-political, economic, and cultural settings in Sri Lanka.
Another point of departure, from previous studies on inter-religious relations, is the deliberate and systematic inclusion of women into the research sample. Women, in discourses of war and conflict,
are predominantly represented as passive victims or active objects of the masculine agency. Hence, they have not figured representatively in research on conflict, religious violence, conflict mitigation, and conflict transformation. This study considers women as agents who contribute both tangibly and ideologically towards the promotion of coexistence and conflict. Hence, more than half of the total
number of respondents are women.
The study was guided by the following overarching questions: What inter-religious problems are encountered in each district and how do these problems play out in society? (enabling conditions and domains)

What/who are perceived as causes for these problems? (agents, domains, enabling conditions)

What conflict resolution mechanisms are adopted, by whom, and how effective are these mechanisms in addressing conflict? (agents and domains)

What are women’s concerns regarding inter-religious relations? Are they different from the concerns of men and to what extent are women involved in propagating and/or mitigating inter-religious conflict? (agents and domains)
Individual key informant interviews were held with male and female religious leaders, community leaders, government officials, representatives of religious organizations, and representatives of civil 4
society. Focus group discussions were held with Women’s Rural Development Societies

s (WRDSs)4
Muslim Women’s Societies, Rural Development Societies (RDSs), District Inter-Religious
Committees5, inter-religious fora, Church societies, Hindu societies, and members of the general public. The rationale was to arrive at a nuanced understanding of how inter-religious relations are perceived both by socially active members of civil society as well as ordinary members of the general public in the four districts. Sampling, therefore, was purposive not only in terms of the gender and experience of the respondents but also in terms of their geographical positioning i.e., respondents who live in multi-religious locales or border areas where two different religious communities live
alongside each other or in areas where there have been incidents of inter-religious conflict. Key informants and respondents were sourced through networks built in the past with local inter-religious groups, individual activists in the four districts and through local civil society organizations. The snowball sampling method was also adopted as the research team was introduced to new respondents by the key informants and participants of the focus group discussions.
Twenty-two individual/key informant interviews and 17 focus group discussions in the four districts were conducted between March 2017 and June 2017 and from April to May 2018. Separate focus group discussions with men and women were conducted in order to discern whether there is a difference in perceptions of and approach to inter-religious relations and conflict mitigation strategies among women and men (see Appendix A for table illustrating the research sample).
Limitations of the Study
The data for this study were collected in early to mid-2017. Due to constraints of time and availability of respondents at the time of data collection, the study was unable to include opinions from Christian and Hindu respondents from Matara and the opinions of the Catholic clergy in Mannar. Hence, Matara and Mannar were revisited in early 2018 to fill this gap. Therefore, the findings from Matara, in particular, vary (not significantly) from the other district data in terms of time. It must also be noted that the study did not cover all the divisions in each district, but used the key informant interviews to identify issues pertinent to each district at large from which the locations for the focus group discussions were selected. Interviews in Jaffna were also largely centred in Jaffna town. Thus, the findings of the study capture the overall issues faced in each district as a whole and, where mentioned, are division/village specific.
4 Women’s Rural Development Societies (WRDSs) are state-led community-based organizations for women. These societies are instituted in each Grama Niladari division of each district. Under the supervision of the Development Officer, WRDSs operate monthly saving schemes and rotational loan schemes to support livelihoods. WRDSs also provide training on income-generating ventures and engage in social work. They have their own constitution and organizational structure. They are often recipients of training both by the state and NGOs.
5 District Inter-religious Committees (DIRCs) were set up by the National Peace Council (NPC) in 2013 as part of a project which responded to the escalation of anti-Muslim sentiments and violence in Sri Lanka. NPC set up DIRCs in Jaffna, Mannar, Puttalam, Galle, Batticaloa, Ampara, Kandy, and Nuwara Eliya. The members of DIRCs were trained on conflict resolution, conflict sensitivity and prioritization of humanitarian needs. Another function of the committees is to foster pluralism, mutual understanding and coexistence. See for more details.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
In relation to approach, it is acknowledged that data collection was positioned with the understanding that the four districts were already sites of inter-religious tensions or conflict. Hence, a shortcoming of the study is that it does not examine aspects that promote inter-religious coexistence. By focusing on inter-religious tensions and conflict, this study may seem to magnify conflict over coexistence. The purpose of this paper is to understand the nature of inter-religious tensions and conflict and how these are addressed at the local level. It must be emphasized, however, that coexistence is predominantly the norm and not the exception at micro village level in all four districts.
The Significance of Space and Place The central thesis of this paper is that ‘location’ (space in the macro sense, i.e., each district, defined by its geographical positioning, ethnoreligious composition, topography, history, and culture) and ‘place’ i.e., space in the micro sense, “a particular form of space…that is created through acts of naming as well as distinctive activities and imaginings” (Shephardson 2014, p. 9) are significant
variables in the shaping of inter-religious relations which result in unique relational configurations in the four districts. Space, therefore, is not neutral but viewed as a construct which is shaped and reshaped across time by agents who most often seek to benefit from a particular representation of space (Shepardson 2014). Power is therefore important to the production of space (Knott 2010) which instantly politicizes and impacts the way in which space is perceived, conceived, and lived. In heterogeneous communities, spaces can thus be layered and multifaceted and signify differently to different agents. This aspect of layered meanings further politicizes space particularly when ownership/entitlement of places are contested. Johnson (2012) states that “contested space primarily points towards the ways in which violent conflict, and the uncertainty which it provokes, outwork geographically and socially” (p. 8). This has particular significance for inter-religious relations in postwar Sri Lanka as will be discussed through a comparison of the four districts in the concluding section of the paper.
In keeping with the main thrust of the paper, i.e., those inter-religious relations are spatially determined and driven by agents, contested domains and enabling conditions, the paper examines and compares the agents, domains and enabling conditions that impact inter-religious relations across the four districts with an emphasis on unique and context-specific inter-relations which are important to propose appropriate, context-relevant solutions. The paper then goes on to discuss women’s role in shaping inter-religious relations and concludes with an analysis of the dynamics in all four villages through the framework proposed.

’Location’ – An Overview of the Four Districts

Mannar6 is a predominantly Catholic district comprising two minority communities – the Muslims and Hindus. According to the national census of 2012 by the Department of Census and Statistics, of the total population of 99570, 52415 (52.6%) are Catholic, 24027 (24.1%) are Hindu, 16512 (16.5%) are Muslim, 4790 (4.8%) are Christian, 1809 (1.8%) are Buddhist, and 17 are identified as belonging to other religions. According to the G.N Administrator’s statistics, Mannar town has 8063 Catholic families, 7306 Muslim families, 3178 Hindu families, 494 Non-RC (Christian) families and 4 Sinhalese families who are migrant fishermen (Government officer, Catholic male, personal communication, March 8, 2017).

The Mannar district, since colonization, has been characterized by its Catholic identity, as it is the site of the venerated shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, as well as the place where Catholics were martyred in the 16th Century7

Mannar also embodies a strong Hindu identity and is the location of an ancient and revered Hindu temple, Thiruketheeswaram,8 which is dedicated to Lord Shiva. In addition to its religious identity, Mannar’s history is also shaped by the 30-year ethnic conflict, during which the then

Bishop of Mannar, Emeritus Bishop Rayappu Joseph, played the role of de facto governor. The conflict also impacted the relationship between the Muslim and Tamil communities in the district, whereby Muslims were forcefully expelled from the Northern Province by the LTTE in 1990 (Hisbullah 2001; Nesiah 2012). This has implications on Tamil-Muslim relations at present due to the return of Muslim families to Mannar after the conflict and reclaiming their property as well as the championing of the Muslim community by an influential politician. Mannar was also a district severely affected by the war and a site of heavy confrontations between the military and the LTTE whereby a majority of its residents suffered losses, were displaced, and have been resettled.

Nine personal interviews with religious leaders, government officials and key informants, three focus group discussions with women’s rural development societies (WRDS) and one focus group discussion with key individuals from the Muslim community were conducted in Mannar from the 6th to the 8th of March, 2017 and one interview in April, 2018. 7 Catholicism was instituted in Sri Lanka by the Portuguese in the 16th Century. Hence, Catholics came under the persecution of Sinhalese and Tamil kings who were at war with the Portuguese. Pinto (2015) notes that “Catholic persecution in the north was more severe than the attacks in the south. Cankili, the king of Jaffna, massacred more than 600 Mannar converts between 1543 and 1544 in the village of Patim. Today, a church off Talaimannar Road, Mannar, marks the location where the Mannar martyrs were buried.” 8 “Thiruketheeswaram is an ancient temple in Manthottamam, in Mannar district, about seven miles north of the Mannar town. According to legend, it was at this ancient temple that Kethu Bhagavan worshipped Lord Easwaram (Shiva).

Hence the shrine acquired the name of Thiruketheeswaram… This great temple was completely destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th Century and the stones from here were used to build the Fort at Mannar, the churches and also the Hammershield Fort at Kayts… Arumuga Navalar who was responsible for the renaissance of Saivism in Sri Lanka in the 19th Century made Hindus realise that they were duty-bound to rebuild this historic temple. Following his appeal made in 1872, the exact location of the destroyed temple was traced in 1894 and some restoration work was done in the early part of the 20th Century.” (The Hindu, 6th December 2002, Online Edition).

Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka

Mannar District

Inter-religious relations in the Mannar district were found to be complex with several agents, domains,
and enabling conditions at play. While it must be stated that, on the whole, communities coexist
peacefully, Mannar, due to its religious diversity and almost proportionate spread of minority religious
groups, was a site of Catholic and Hindu conflict, Catholic and Muslim conflict, Intra-Christian
conflict (Catholic and Non-RC), Catholic/Hindu Tamil and Sinhala Buddhist conflict (in order of
intensity) at the time of data collection. These conflicts impacted the psyche and sometimes the actions
of the respective religious communities significantly. They are fuelled by religious leaders, politicians,
the Sri Lankan military, international actors, independent Catholic priests and lay individuals, and
enabled by economic, political, spiritual, and cultural conditions.

The Jaffna district9 is (and has historically been) considered the cultural and political capital of the
Tamils of Sri Lanka and the base of the Northern Provincial Council (NPC). According to the census
report of 2012, of the total population of 583,882, there are 483,255 Hindus (82.7%), 2168 Buddhists
(0.3%), 75474 Roman Catholics (12.9%), 2363 Muslims (0.4%), 20511 Christians (3.5%), and 111 who
are identified as belonging to other religions in the Jaffna District. Many factors contribute to the
socio-political climate in Jaffna. On the one hand, post-war infrastructural development was begun
after the war with heavy involvement of the military. The military has put up shops and hotels in Jaffna
and their presence has created a sense of alienation among the Tamils from the process of
development. On the other hand the NPC has limited capacity for service provision in comparison to
other provincial councils in Sri Lanka whereby most of the development initiatives were conducted
by the central government without consultation with the NPC. Furthermore, solutions to issues such
as high security zones, missing persons, resettlement and land are dependent on the central
government. The NPC is also considered discriminatory in their approach to the issues of the
9 Two focus group discussions with Women’s Rural Development Societies and six key informant interviews with
religious leaders, government administrators, a politician, journalist, and woman leader were conducted largely in Jaffna
town but also in the surrounding areas of Kaithady, Madduvil, and Anaicoddai from the 8th to the 10th of March, 2017.

Northern Muslims. All of these factors impact ethno-religious relations as will be illustrated in the
subsequent sections of the report.
In Jaffna, it is ethnicity rather than religion that forms the basis of and sometimes manifests in interreligious tensions/conflict. Muslim-Tamil/Hindu relations are tainted by the political expulsion of the
Muslims from the North by the LTTE in the 90s. Sinhala Buddhist-Tamil Hindu/Christian relations
are impacted negatively by the ethnic war and militarization post war. The only purely inter-religious
tensions at the level of perception were those between Tamil Hindus and Tamil Christians over the
issue of unethical10 conversion of Hindus to Christianity and conflicts and inequalities arising out of
Intra-Hindu relations on the basis of caste. These conflicts (like in Mannar) are influenced by the Sri
Lankan military, politicians, religious leaders, and lay individuals and are enabled by political, cultural,
economic, and spiritual factors.
The Ampara district11 is on the east coast of Sri Lanka and is significant due to its ethno-religious
composition. The majority community in Ampara is Muslim and of the total population of 649,402
(according to the census report of 2012), Muslims comprise 281,987 (43.4%). There are 252,427
(38.8%) Buddhists, 102,829 (15.8%) Hindus, 7588 (1.1%) Roman Catholics, and 5542 (0.8%)
10 The term ‘unethical’ in this paper does not represent the author’s views but is representative of the popular ‘discourse of unethical conversion’, particularly among majority ethno-religious communities. 11 Five focus group discussions with Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist men and women and four personal interviews with key informants were conducted between the 24th and 27th of May 2017.
Jaffna District

Inter r Districts of Sri Lanka
Ampara is an area with the largest concentration of Muslims who live geographically side by side with Tamils and have little interaction with the Sinhala community which is concentrated in the town. The the district is significant for its disputes related to the appropriation of land by the state and religious institutions claiming that they are religious/sacred/archaeological sites as well as for its complex and ethnicized local administrative systems. The Ampara district was also affected by the ethnic conflict and relations between the Tamils and Muslims were strained due to the forced expulsion of Muslims from the North by the LTTE, and the Kathankudy mosque massacre in 199012.
The inter-religious conflict between Sinhala Buddhists and Muslims is the primary conflict in Ampara and is fuelled by politicians, government officials, and individual monks. The conflict is grounded in ideology, but manifests in the appropriation and desecration of (religious/private) spaces. Tamils and
Muslims live in villages bordering each other in the Ampara District. They have historically been in interaction with each other because the traditional farmlands of the Muslim community are located near Tamil villages and this has not caused any conflicts between the two communities. Rather, TamilMuslim relations at present are strained on the basis of economics, land, and culture and is primarily
driven by individual actions. While there are some tensions between Hindus and Christians and among Christians, these were deemed insignificant by the respondents in comparison to the other interreligious conflicts in the district.
12 Two mosques in Kathankudy were attacked by the LTTE on the 3rd of August 1990, killing more than 100 worshippers who were at prayer (Hasbullah and Korf 2012). This incident took place amidst rising tensions between Muslims and Tamils in the North and the East. With regard to the breakdown of Muslim-Tamil relations in the East,
McGilvray (2003) notes that the historic Moor-Mukkuvar alliance celebrated in Batticaloa legend was shattered in 1990, when the Eastern Command of the LTTE, acting on local grudges and resentments, launched a series of pogroms and
attacks against Muslims, including the well-publicized Kathankudy mosque massacre” (101). McGilvray further notes that in response, the government armed the Muslims and established Muslim home militias, which have been “accused of vendetta operations against local Tamils” (101).

12 Two mosques in Kathankudy were attacked by the LTTE on the 3rd of August 1990, killing more than 100
worshippers who were at prayer (Hasbullah and Korf 2012). This incident took place amidst rising tensions between
Muslims and Tamils in the North and the East. With regard to the breakdown of Muslim-Tamil relations in the East,
McGilvray (2003) notes that the historic Moor-Mukkuvar alliance celebrated in Batticaloa legend was shattered in 1990, when the Eastern command of the LTTE, acting on local grudges and resentments, launched a series of pogroms and attacks against Muslims, including the well-publicized Kathankudy mosque massacre” (101). McGilvray further notes that in response, the government armed the Muslims and established Muslim home militias, which have been “accused of vendetta operations against local Tamils” (101).

Matara13 is a predominantly Sinhala Buddhist district in the South of Sri Lanka with a total population
of 814,048 in 2012. The majority Sinhala community comprises 766,323 (94.1%) followed by 25,614
(3.1%) Muslims, 16,421 Hindus (2%), 2432 (0.29%) Roman Catholics, and 3,208 (0.39%) Non-RC
Christians. The multi ethnoreligious composition of the district, with a significant Buddhist majority
which is exposed and susceptible to Buddhist nationalist and extremist ideology, makes this a site that
has the potential for future conflict.
The primary conflict in the Matara district is between Sinhalese Buddhists and Muslims and manifests
in various forms of discrimination, acts of violence, and hate speech. The conflict is driven chiefly by
economic and cultural factors and grounded in ideological notions of religious supremacy and
fear/ignorance of the ethno-religious other. Tamil Hindu/Christian and Sinhalese Buddhist relations
are also strained on the basis of Sinhala nationalism, institutionalized racism, and memories of the
violent ethnic riots in the past. These conflicts are enabled by religious leaders, government officials,
and lay individuals.
13 Four focus group discussions in Matara town and Weligama were conducted with Muslims and Buddhists from the
17th to the 18th of June, 2017. Matara was revisited in May 2018 and interviews held in Deniyaya, a division in Matara
which consists of Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist plantation workers, to obtain a clearer picture of relations
between the four religious communities. Three key informant interviews with a Buddhist monk, moulavi and Non-RC
pastor (a Hindu priest did not attend despite invitation) and two focus group discussions were held with Buddhist and
Hindu/Christian members of an inter-religious forum in Deniyaya. The respondents were also members of other local
youth and rural development committees in the village.
Matara District

  1. Domains of Contestation, Agents, and Enabling Conditions of Inter-religious Conflict
    This section draws from Mayer’s (2013) understanding of inter-religious conflict as emerging from
    contestations over domains such as power, ideology/morality, personality, space/place, and group
    identity by agents acting as individuals or as part of a group or community. Conflicts also occur in
    context and there are various individual and often intersecting conditions in a particular village or
    district that help nurture conflict. Mayer (2013) identifies the economic, political, social, cultural, and
    psychological conditions specific to place as enabling/provoking agents to contest different domains.
    This approach allows for a broader focus, refraining from looking at conflicts that are driven by purely
    religious considerations, but at conflicts as deriving from contestations of a combination of domains
    where religion is only one driving force. Thus it allows the inclusion of political, economic, cultural,
    and ethnic considerations which often underlie inter-religious conflict.
    In all four districts, the overarching enabling condition for inter- and intra-religious conflict is ethnoreligious nationalism and majoritarianism which is embedded in all strata of social, political, and
    economic institutions and interactions. In the districts of Mannar, Jaffna, and Ampara, an additional
    and intersecting enabling condition is the fracturing of inter-ethnic relations between Muslims and
    Tamils due to the expulsion of Muslims from the North by the LTTE, which has resulted in animosity,
    fear, and disputes over land.
    The data presents four primary domains of conflict, two associated with place and space – conflict
    over the appropriation of sacred spaces and imposition of religious symbols of one religious
    community on another, and conflict over the appropriation of land for the purposes of territorial
    expansion which is not motivated by religion, but manifests as religious conflict. The third domain is
    related to the tussle for power and economic dominance and the fourth domain with ideology and
    Given the complexity and extent of the data which draws from dynamics in four districts, the thematic
    issues are sequenced in order of importance and frequency in which they were mentioned by the
    respondents. The analysis will also commence with the more religiously motivated conflicts and then
    move on to conflicts where the involvement of religion is incidental or employed as an additional
    2.1. Contestations over Sacred Space and Symbols
    2.1.1. Buddhicization of Tamil/Hindu Spaces: New Significations Post War
    In Sri Lanka, religious identity is symbolically represented in various forms through architecture,
    colour, clothing, motifs, and even sound. These symbols have, throughout Sri Lanka’s colonial and
    post-colonial political history, been appropriated to further the causes of ethno-nationalism and thus
    gain an added layer of meaning and are ascribed with new significations. In the post-war context, in
    addition to the Buddhist flag and the statue of the Buddha, the bo tree in particular, which is revered
    both by Buddhists and Hindus but more popularly symbolizes Buddhism, has gained an added

meaning by being appropriated by the military as a means to signify victory, dominance, and
triumphalism in the North and North East.
The primary concern expressed by both Christians and Hindus in Jaffna and Mannar was the building
of Buddhist temples and installation of statues of the Buddha in areas occupied by the army or in areas
where there are bo trees. This imposition of Buddhism is viewed as a deliberate act of nationalist
triumphalism which is also seen in other parts of the Northern Province. In Jaffna, the army was also
accused of having destroyed churches and kovils in high security zones in Palali and Kankesanthurai
which is perceived as an attempt to erase history (WRDS member, Hindu female, March 8, 2017).
Hoisting of the Buddhist flag in areas where there are no Buddhists is also viewed as an attempt to
antagonize the residents of the area.
Another important agent contributing to this symbolic imposition are independent monks who
capitalize on the military’s Buddhicization venture by establishing temples for their personal gain with
the support of the military (Politician, Hindu male, March 9, 2017). A politician from the Jaffna
District cited the example of Nedunthivu where a monk has taken over the area and constructed a
shrine with the support of the army despite the fact that there are no residents in the area. Similarly, a
Buddhist shrine has been put up within the premises of a kovil in Kilinochchi. Similar dynamics paly
out in Mannar as well and the Tamil respondents expressed displeasure at the construction of temples
and installation of statues of the Buddha in certain locations, particularly where there is an army camp
or a police station. Independent Buddhist monks are also believed to be using the presence of wild bo
trees or surreptitiously planting new bo trees as an excuse to proclaim that there had been Buddhist
settlements and temples in the area in the past and to justify the erection of new temples. Accordingly,
when the research team asked for the history of a particular temple, the chief incumbents commenced
their narratives with the existence of the bo tree. The team also observed a number of small shrines
alongside (recently planted) bo trees along the Mannar-Medawachiya road. This strategy has resulted
in a shift in the signification of bo trees where one Catholic respondent stated that in the past, Tamils
respected bo trees. However, with the distortion of the significance of bo trees by the military and
independent monks, respect for bo trees has decreased, leading some people to uproot young bo trees
to prevent the areas from being claimed by Buddhists (CSO officer, Catholic female, March 6, 2017).
Another aspect of Buddhicization which moves beyond ethnicity and is premised more on religious
nationalism is the construction of Buddhist shrines or temples alongside or in close proximity to
traditionally Hindu places of worship. One location where a temple is being built and a statue of the
Buddha installed is Thiruketheeswaram which was once a stronghold of the LTTE, later abandoned
by the predominantly Hindu residents due to the war and occupied by the army. When the residents
were resettled in the area in 2015, they found that a Statue of the the Buddha had been installed on
private land owned by a Hindu individual. A meditation hall has also been constructed in the area, a
monk installed, a temple is being constructed and its ‘history’ (a series of newspaper cuttings in Sinhala)
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
displayed on a noticeboard. The justification is that Thiruketheeswaram is on the route that
Sangamiththai14 took.
Women respondents from Jaffna stated during an FGD that Naina Thivu, where there is a revered
Hindu kovil, had also been seized, a Buddhist shrine constructed and a separate boat and path
organized for Sinhala pilgrims. They stated that, in the past, there was only one boat for both Sinhala
and Tamil pilgrims and that both communities had worshipped and partaken meals at the kovil
together (WRDS member, Hindu female, March 9, 2017). This visible segregation of worship spaces
and rituals post-war was viewed by the respondents as a deliberate attempt to separate Hindu and
Buddhist pilgrims who shared religious practices in the past. Furthermore, the construction of a temple
in Mathahal, at the site of Sangamiththai’s entry to Jaffna, where previously there was only a
commemorative statue, was viewed again as a deliberate attempt at Buddhicization of historically
shared spaces and undermining the Tamil/Hindu identity of the North. However, some respondents
stated that Buddhism is not a barrier to Hindus as both religions have shared practices, while a local
politician expressed a lack of faith in the government taking action regarding such matters due to its
tenuous hold over the independent actions of the military.
This fact is further reinforced by the research team’s observation that the Buddhist temples in the
Mannar area were patronized solely by military and police personnel. The monks of two temples
visited in Mannar also acknowledged that there were no Sinhalese settlements in the vicinity and that
it is the military and the police who play a significant role in construction work, religious events and
decoration of Buddhist temples in the area. Furthermore, all meals for the temple are sponsored by
the police, army or officers of the Civil Defence Force. The military and the police were also observed
playing an important role in the Buddhist temple in Jaffna town, providing meals to the temple and
maintaining its physical infrastructure. A monk from the temple, therefore, expressed the view that
the temple does not face any challenges from the people in the area and that it is a site of cultural
activities and coexistence. He said, “There is no conflict between Buddhists and Hindus in Jaffna.
This is mainly due to many cultural similarities between the two religions. Some of the gods are revered
commonly by both communities. We have shrines for gods within the temple premises and it is
common to see Hindus coming inside and worshiping their gods in those shrines. Hindus participate
in Buddhist cultural and religious activities during Vesak and Poson. They help us to decorate the
temple and surroundings during Vesak. The temple provides them the space to have some of their
community meetings and is maintaining friendly relations with the Hindu religious leaders and the
community in general” (Monk, Buddhist male, March 8, 2017).
Tamil-Buddhist relations in Mannar and Jaffna, therefore, seem to be based on systematized
antagonism by the military and independent monks and no confrontation from the Tamil Hindus and
Christians. As one respondent stated, “The government did this at a time when people could not
protest” (WRDS member, Hindu female, March 9, 2017). The tension, therefore is not among lay
14 Also known as Sangamiththa in Sinhala is a female monk (Bikkuni) and daughter of the Emperor Ashoka who
brought a sapling of the Bo tree to Sri Lanka from India
persons, but between lay Hindu/Christian Tamils and the state agenda of Buddhicization and its
2.1.2. Identity and Dominance through Increasing Visibility: The competitive and Symbolic Installation of Religious Statues
While the military’s attempt to Buddhicize the Northern Province speaks to the larger national
discourse on ethno-nationalism, regional nationalisms also play an important role in impacting ethnoreligious relations. At a national level, the military could be viewed as encroaching on private
(Tamil/Hindu) spaces. However, at a micro district level, different competing religious institutions
encroach on and transform public secular places into spiritual spaces. The districts of Mannar and
Ampara, in particular, demonstrated regional religio-nationalism in various forms, one of which is the
competitive installation of religious statues in public spaces by both Catholics and Hindus in Mannar
and Buddhists in Ampara which results in public confrontations, vandalism, and sometimes violence.
The Mannar district identifies and is identified as a Catholic district. Hindus and Christians have been
coexisting in Mannar since the introduction of Christianity in the 16th century with no conflicts despite
a bloody history when in 1544 the Northern Hindu ruler Sangliyan (Cankili I) ordered the killing of
Catholics in Mannar when they refused to reconvert. Six-hundred Catholics were killed and their
remains discovered when constructing a church now known as the Martyrs Church which for some
Catholic respondents is symbolic not only of a history of inter-religious conflict, but also of the
staunch Catholic identity of the district.
The competitive installation of religious statues is a conspicuous conflict in the Mannar district where
one cannot miss the relatively recent (post-war) placement of small golden statues of the Lord Ganesh
alongside or opposite Catholic statues on public roads. The Catholic respondents argued that statues
have always been placed at the top of roads, junctions etc., as a practice in Mannar and that Hindus
are now competing by installing their own. The Hindu respondents accused the Catholics of breaking
statues of the Lord Ganesh, which has resulted in public clashes (sometimes involving violence)
between the two communities. The destruction of Hindu statues allegedly by Catholics is attributed
to fear that the placement of a Hindu statue in a public place could lead to the gradual expansion of
that area from an informal place of worship (secular) to a formal temple (sacred) (Priest, Catholic
male, April 14, 2018). Hindus were also accused of vandalizing Catholic statues and the Hindu
respondents’ justification is that Catholics surreptitiously put up new statues in Hindu areas on
privately-owned property overnight in order to circumvent the need to obtain state approval to install
a statue. This also makes it difficult for government officers and the public to contest or demand the
removal of the statues out of respect for their religious significance. As one Hindu respondent stated,
Hindus respect all Gods and therefore will not destroy statues (Medical officer, Hindu male, March 6,
2017). Examples of areas of contention over the competitive placement of statues are the Adamban
junction, Manthai West, Musali, Nanattan and the Checkpoint at Nayattru Road. It is possible to argue
that the placement of religious statues in spaces ‘belonging’ to religious others, or the spiritualization
of secular spaces is an attempt at symbolic territorial expansion whereby, for example, a traditionally
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
Hindu space is marked as Catholic or a Catholic space contested by Hindus. Minority-majority
relations are also at play with the insecure minority driving this expansion and the majority reasserting
its status.
The perception among both Catholic and Hindu respondents was that this competitive installation of
religious statues is not the act of lay individuals, but funded and promoted by politicians for their gain.
Another opinion was that the conflict is incited by Hindu extremist groups such as Shiv Sena and RSS
based in India that have local arms in the North. Nevertheless, it impacts relationships between lay
Catholics and Hindus at the level of perception and creates tension between both communities.
The dynamics in Mannar play out similarly in Ampara where the Muslim community enjoys majority
status and the Sinhala community is (uncharacteristically) a minority concentrated in the town. A
reactionary practice of the Sinhala Buddhist community is the installation of statues of the Buddha in
areas that are predominantly Muslim. This leads to confrontations between the two communities
which often result in violence. An example is Pottuvil, an area which has a Muslim majority.
Respondents explained that some Buddhist individuals had put up a statue of the Buddha on the main
road. In response, the Muslims went on strike and were shot at. Another example is Ashraf Nagar
where a stone has been placed to build a statue of the Buddha and land demarcated to expand the
boundary of the Buddhist shrine. Here too, these acts were perceived to be politically motivated;
however, the acts also reflected the sentiments of the general public.

2.2. Growth of Extremism, Hate Speech, Mistrust and the Role of Social Media
While the three districts in the Northern and Eastern Provinces experienced the physical manifestation
of Sinhala Buddhist nationalism and regional Catholic and Hindu nationalisms in the tangible form of
appropriation of religious spaces and symbols, minority religious communities in Matara district in the
South experience conflict as a result of religious extremism entering the ideological domain at
grassroots level. In Matara, inter-religious conflict is based primarily on economic rivalry and business
grievances (as will be subsequently discussed) which are aired out through hate speech on social media.
Respondents stated that those engaging in hate speech are supporters and sympathisers of the Bodu
Bala Sena (BBS) which uses social media as a platform for their propaganda. The Muslim women
respondents from Matara town emphasized the importance of banning the BBS on social media. They
stated that numerous antagonizing SMSs are sent warning people against patronizing Muslim
businesses, but no action is taken against hate speech on facebook and that facebook groups managed
by Ravana Balakaya, Maha Soan Balakaya and Dayan Prasad are not stopped. The Buddhist
respondents in Weligama also echoed this view stating that there is still no reconciliation although the
war is over and that the media is playing a strong role in disrupting reconciliation in the country.
Youth were cited as the most vulnerable to incitement through hate speech on social media. The
Muslim women also expressed concern about the youths’ response to such provocative hate speech
on social media. They stated that these posts anger the youth and the mosque is working hard to
preach patience whereby the sermons at mosques focus on how the youth should be patient and not
act rashly. In Weligama, Buddhist respondents also stated that while there were no conflicts at
grassroots level, the youth were a cause for concern as there are conflicts among them. The
respondents in Deniyaya also expressed concern that the youth are easily susceptible to incitement
and therefore, required a lot of awareness raising and sensitization, particularly to linguistic differences
which can cause misunderstanding and conflict.
Extremism manifests differently within the psychological domain in Weligama, leading to suspicion
and mistrust among minority communities that extremist groups are plotting against them. While
Muslim respondents stated that coexistence is the norm in the area and asserted that it is racist
organizations and not the communities they live with who instigate violence/trouble, they view the
BBS as their greatest threat. The respondents express fear and suspicion over covert plots against their
community hatched by the BBS which operates and meets in temples in Sinhalese villages that border
Muslim villages. The respondents also expressed concerns about a committee that has formed in order
to conspire against the Muslims. They stated that one initiative of this committee is to spread hatred
towards Muslims whereby some Montessoris (nursery schools) instil negative stereotypes of the
Muslim community, teaching children that Muslims wear the thoppi and beard and that they think ill
of people and want to do harm. The penetration of the ideological domain of multi-ethnic
communities, particularly of young children, with prejudice and negative stereotypes by extremist
groups thus causes concerns about the emergence of inter-religious conflict in the future. Thus,
considering the future of their youth, the Muslim women respondents expressed fear that Muslims
will be discriminated against in relation to job opportunities and at hospitals if such poisonous antiMuslim ideologies spread and grow in the community.
The Muslim respondents, however, emphasised that not all monks are involved in such activities and
that there is a monk who defends Muslims even when they are in the wrong. They noted that there is
a need for all good monks to stand up against Gnanasara and the BBS as they are the biggest threat
to inter-religious harmony.
Confronted with the reality within their district, the Buddhist respondents in Matara and Weligama
were introspective and self-critical in their analysis of religious extremism. They agreed that the
extremist Buddhist practices of people like Gnanasara are very harmful to coexistence as they create
unnecessary and irrelevant problems. The Buddhist respondents in Weligama were extremely critical
about the behaviour of Gnanasara. He was referred to as a “mad man” and a “thug”. The community
sees him as a man with political backing and motives and who uses media to spread hatred among
different communities. They were all in agreement that people like him should be controlled. They
also added that temples have become highly commercialized and have become centres of collecting
money which hardly support the poor. The respondents noted that certain monks have become
undisciplined and corrupt and are creating a wrong picture about Buddhism to others. Religious
extremism, as perceived by the Buddhist respondents, is a means for individual monks to enrich
themselves financially (Participants of FGD, Buddhist men and women, June 17, 2017).
Reiterating the above, a monk candidly discussed conflict among the Buddhist clergy distinguishing
between monks who “pretend to be religious” and create conflict and moderate monks who comprise
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
a minority of the Sasanarakshaka (a body that protects the Buddha Sasana) which he belongs to. He
also expressed his fear to participate in inter-religious activities as this resulted in censure not only
from the other monks in his sasana, but also the community who visits the temples. He cited the
suspicious demise of a liberal monk as resulting from his participation in inter-religious programmes.
Thus, moderate monks such as the respondent, are fearful and find it difficult to engage positively
with other religious communities in the village (Monk, Buddhist male, May 26, 2018).
Extremism, particularly among the Buddhist community (neither the Buddhist nor Muslim
respondents mentioned Muslim extremism), thus, seems to be driven by powerful individual agents
with personal and political motivations. Their propagation of hatred and hate speech not only
incapacitates liberal monks from expressing their views and engaging in inter-religious activities but
also sows the seed of confusion, suspicion, and mistrust among communities.
Thus, a significant finding of the study is that it is mistrust and suspicion, rather than misconception,
which are key factors that promote inter-religious conflict. This has to do with fear stemming from
the insecurities of each ethno-religious community, both at local and national levels, which are framed
and fuelled by hate speech and propaganda of extremist elements. In Ampara, the Muslim community
is of the opinion that there is a larger (national) plot of ethnic cleansing and this opinion is fed by
individual acts of vandalism and violence against the community. A Muslim hotel in Ampara town
was burnt down and a mosque wall damaged in 2017. This was attributed by the Muslims to the
impunity granted to the Sinhalese by the State whereby they are able to act on their prejudices without
fear of censure.
Another manifestation of mistrust and possible discrimination is in relation to the human-elephant
conflict. A few Muslim respondents from Ampara stated that they are facing problems due to
elephants in recent times. According to them, there was not much movement of elephants in these
areas 30-40 years ago and their argument is that elephant fences have been put up in Sinhala villages
and the elephants chased to Muslim villages like Alayadivembu and Palamunai. The justification that
this act is deliberate is because the elephants are not wild as they have iron rings around their legs.
Irrespective of whether their suspicion proves accurate or not, the fact that such occurrences are
attributed to anti-Muslim sentiments among the Buddhist community emphasizes how mistrust can
cause tension between communities.
Similar to the Muslim respondents, the Buddhist respondents in Ampara also expressed mistrust in
the actions of the Muslim community. They felt that there is a bigger conspiracy behind the Muslims
requesting for the removal of the forces from the North and the East which will not be in their
(Sinhalese’) favour. They also fear a conspiracy for the separation of the North and East and this fear
is in keeping with the national discourse on the preservation of the Sinhala Buddhist Nation, which is
fuelled by extremist groups. The extent to which extremist views have permeated the grassroots is
evidenced in a Buddhist respondent’s opinion that the Sinhalese should live in a Sinhala country and
that Muslims should live in a Muslim country and that there is a need to protect Sinhala culture and
refuse aid from Muslim countries (Member of village development forum, Buddhist male, May 25,
2018). Some respondents also expressed their respect for Gnanasara (BBS) because he is a monk.
They argued that while the Bodu Bala Sena’s (BBS) religious reasoning and feelings for the country
are justifiable, its actions based on such reasoning are wrong. A few respondents echoed this view by
reflecting that Buddhism is in jeopardy in the current context and that the Sinhala population is not
responding in a fitting manner that is respectful of the religion. Furthermore, they believed that
Muslims and Tamils do not respect Buddhism, whereas they respect their religions, thus unsettling the
foremost position of Buddhism in the country.
2.3. Evangelism, Inter-marriage, and ‘Unethical’ Conversions
An important reason for both inter- and intra-religious conflict is evangelism, particularly among and
by the Christian community. Evangelism affects inter-religious relations as it threatens ‘group identity’
which is based primarily on religion and ethnicity, but also on socio-economic and political power. It
also affects intra-religious relations which are defined by religion and caste.
Among the Catholic and Christian communities, the increase and proliferation of evangelical churches
particularly in the Mannar, Ampara, and Matara districts rupture the identities of previously
homogeneous religious communities resulting in both inter- and intra-religious conflicts at personal,
social, and political levels. In the Mannar district, there are three broad groups of Christians (as defined
by the respondents) – the traditional Catholics (Roman Catholics), the Mainline Churches and the
Free Churches (both broadly referred to as Non-Roman Catholic). The Catholic respondents did not
express much concern about the Free Churches, but focused more on their relationships with Muslims
and Hindus. At institutional level, the Catholic Church (which is at the top of the religious hierarchy
in Mannar) does not have any official interaction with Free Churches, but can have interactions with
what it identifies as Mainline Churches such as Anglicans and Baptists. According to a representative
of the Catholic Church, building a relationship with the Free Churches would be something that might
occur in 15-20 years’ time (Priest, Catholic male, April 14, 2018).
While the Catholic respondents did not raise any concerns about the Non-RC community, the
respondents representing the Free Churches expressed several concerns against the Catholics.
According to a pastor of a Free Church, 2.6% of the population in Mannar is Non-RC and conflict
with Catholics emerge on the basis of land and identity. This is due to the mushrooming of Free
Churches and the fact that most of the Free Churches are built on privately-owned land (often on the
personal land of the pastor or his/her relatives) due to difficulty in obtaining local government
approval to establish a new church in the area. The construction of Free Churches is met with hostility
by Catholic villagers and neighbours (who are also relatives of the pastor) who throw stones at NonRC hurches and even vandalize the often makeshift buildings. It is important to note that while these
forms of violence are based on intolerance and opposition to intrusion on the Catholic identity of a
village, they are also personal problems because the perpetrators are most often close relatives and
neighbours of the individual who are disgruntled by the fact that their Catholic relative has left the
Church for a new church. Thus, a pastor said, the Catholics in his village were not his enemies because
80% of them are his relatives (Pastor, Non-RC male, March 7, 2017). He cited the historical
identification of Mannar as a Catholic Diocese as the root cause for people’s antagonism towards the
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
emergence of new Christian denominations. This has also resulted in opposition to intra-Christian
The pastor of the Free Church was also self-critical about the reasons for opposition to the
proliferation of new Christian denominations in the Mannar District. He stated that when theological
disagreements occur among a Free Church community (sabai), a few members break away and start
their own church. This new church is often situated within a kilometre of the parent church. The
pastor was also critical of the fact that Free Churches do not have a standardized theology. While
some pastors study theology at Non-RC universities, others do not. He stated that those who do not
have a background in theology are merely using their churches as a means of making profit. Thus,
registration of churches is important according to him. This requirement for registration is
circumvented by basing one’s private church within the premises of one’s home.
Concomitant to the mushrooming of Free Churches is the increase in religious conversions. In Jaffna,
‘unethical’ conversions by evangelical churches create unpleasantness between Tamil Catholic and
Hindu communities. The Catholic and Non-RC respondents stated that their relationship with the
Hindu majority is amicable. The Hindu respondents, on the other hand, expressed concerns that
members of their community are easily being converted to Christianity by Non-RC evangelical groups.
In the past, Hindus converted to Christianity to escape caste discrimination, to advance in terms of
education, for financial gain, and also to acquire Christian names to avoid persecution during the war
(Government officer, Hindu male, March 10, 2017). At present, conversions to Christianity are
motivated by miraculous healing received, prophecies fulfilled and monetary incentives provided by
evangelical churches such as the Assembly of God and the Ceylon Pentecostal Mission (President of
WRDS, Hindu female, March 9, 2017). Conversion to Christianity even to Buddhism and Islam is also
effected through inter-marriage. The respondents observed that it is almost always the Hindu partner
who converts. One respondent stated that this is because Hinduism is polytheistic whereby they are
more accepting of other gods. Though some respondents stated that they consciously resist
conversion, the impact of Christian evangelization results in some Hindus worshipping both at
Christian churches and at Hindu kovils. All the respondents stated that there had been no overt
conflicts as a result of conversions despite the fact that there was disappointment at the level of
perception. However, the Jehovah’s Witness is the only group over which the Hindus and even the
Christian respondents expressed dislike due to their intrusive methods of conversion.
In Ampara, the Hindu respondents stated that relations between the Hindus and Christians were
amicable despite the fact that religious conversions take place. One respondent echoed the general
attitude towards Christians stating that “If there are Christians next door, they will somehow convert
you. I don’t know whether it is some form of black magic” (Member of mediation board, Hindu
female, May 24, 2017). According to another respondent, the two communities had cordial relations
because several mixed marriages take place and most Hindu converts worship in both the kovil and
the church (echoing the opinion from Jaffna). The Hindu respondents, however, could not tell the
difference between the different Christian denominations such as Jesus Calls, Jesus Lives, Catholics,
and Methodists even though they were able to name these denominations. A Hindu priest was critical
of his own community stating that Hindus convert to Christianity and Islam because the Hindu temple
administration is self-serving and comprises of the priest’s relatives. A contributing factor is that there
is no single unifying Hindu institution and each temple is independent. Therefore, most temple
administrations do not have a social outreach that provides charitable services to its community unlike
the Christians and Muslims. The only grievance that the Hindus expressed against the Christians is
that they sing loudly during worship and this disrupts the studies of children of surrounding Hindu
families. However, a Christian pastor said that Hindus throw stones and protest when a new church
is instituted in a village. An example is an area called Thambalavil where Hindus have stopped
Christians from building churches by setting fire to and destroying the constructions.
In Deniyaya, the Hindu respondents echoed concerns about Christian evangelical churches. They
clearly distinguished between the Catholic Church, which does not evangelize, and the Christian
churches such as Assembly of God, Calvary and other new, small churches which convert individuals
by spreading false attitudes about other religions. The Hindu respondents did not express opposition
to conversion. They justified conversion as stemming from the capitalist and disinterested attitude of
Hindu priests who view the kovil as a business and not as an institution of service. However, their
primary objection with evangelical churches was their encouragement of disrespectful practices such
as throwing out images of gods onto the street which is offensive to Hindus and contests the Hindu
While much of the conflict based on evangelism in intra-religious or concerns Christians and Hindus,
in Deniyaya, the relationship between Buddhists and Christians, on the other hand, has not been
cordial where a church of the Assembly of God was attacked in 2013 and in 2016 a Methodist church
attacked, vandalized, and its occupants assaulted, threatened and forcefully evacuated from the
building by monks (who were considered followers of the BBS) and a large number of lay supporters.
While the Buddhist justification was that the Christian churches were accused of converting through
deception and bribes, a representative of a Christian church denied these allegations stating that the
church only provided social service and repudiated the allegation of unethical conversions (Pastor,
Non-RC male, May 26, 2018).
2.4. Caste Discrimination and Inequalities
Caste is a hidden and seldom discussed issue which influences intra-reli

s intra-religious relations among both
the Hindu and Catholic communities in Jaffna and in Ampara. Caste places individuals and
communities along a hierarchy of spaces and social, cultural, and economic roles. Among the Hindu
respondents from Jaffna, caste was mentioned as a factor affecting religious rituals and practices
whereby members of lower castes are not allowed to perform certain functions such as preparing and
serving meals during temple festivals. Altercations at kovil festivals over the denial of space and roles
for Hindus considered of lower caste has caused conflict, leading to the filing of legal action against a
high caste temple administration in one instance and, in another, to the lower caste devotees refraining
from visiting the temple. In such situations, new temples are built by members of the lower caste as
an alternative, though they did express a longing to visit their ancestral temples (kula kovil).
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
Caste is also an issue among the Tamil Catholics, one of its manifestations being that a priest belonging
to a higher caste is considered to have a special stamp of authority. Similarly, in the Hindu community,
lower caste priests are allocated temples of ‘lesser’ Gods and higher caste priests the temples of
‘greater’ Gods like Shiva. However, the respondents stated that while Hindu priests do not
discriminate based on caste and perform pujas at all kovils, it is the temple administration groups
comprising lay persons and community leaders that preserve caste distinctions. They further stated
that caste is mostly observed in villages, but is not pronounced in urban parts of Jaffna. A Tamil
politician corroborated this view stating that while there are those who capitalize on the caste system
for political gain, there is no discrimination based on caste in public relations. He noted further that it
is the smaller, family-owned temples that observe caste differences, whereas public temples in Jaffna
do not impose any restrictions based on caste.

An observation made by the research team is that the issue of caste was brought up only by members
of lower castes and that too on employing probing questions. Respondents from higher castes
dismissed the issue stating that caste was not a problem in Jaffna. Furthermore, caste impacts not only
religious relations, but also permeates to social institutions such as schools. A few respondents stated
that some schools in the villages discriminated against students based on caste and restricted their
access to opportunities, but this was not the case for schools in more urban areas.
Caste is also a phenomenon that makes an ethnic community vulnerable and is capitalized on by other
communities such as the Muslim community (consciously or unconsciously) in their expansion of
territorial boundaries. In Ampara, the Mulsim community is said to purchase land belonging to low
caste Tamils which Tamils of higher castes are reluctant to purchase. With regard to the Christian
community, caste was also mentioned as manifesting in subtle ways in church practices whereby those
belonging to higher castes occupy higher posts in the church administration. However, a pastor stated
that caste is not a divisive factor during church services where everyone sits together. This was similaracross Jaffna, Mannar, and Ampara.

2.5. Territorial Expansion: Land as a Symbol of Ethno-religious Dominance
The appropriation of land (sometimes belonging to the ethno-religious other) by an ethno-religious
community as a means of exerting dominance through territorial expansion is also a manifestation of
competing regional ethno-religious nationalisms stemming from insecurities of minority ethnic
groups. This was particularly evident in Ampara and Mannar among the Muslims and Buddhists who
consider themselves minorities in relation to Tamils in the Northern and Eastern Provinces and in
relation to Muslims in Ampara as well as in Jaffna where territorial expansion through the settlement
of military families on state and private land in the district is a state-led venture.
Land is particularly a source of inter-religious disharmony in the Ampara District. At the time of data
collection in 2017, Muslim-Buddhist relations had the potential to become violent and they did in
February and March 2018. There are several layered factors that influence the relationship between
the two religious communities – Muslims’ influence in local administration, Buddhists’ insecurity as
they are a minority in the district, Sinhala Buddhist nationalism, the role of Buddhist extremist groups
and lack of interaction between the two ethno-religious communities. All of these factors manifest in
land disputes whereby the Buddhist community is accused of encroaching on Muslim lands with the
goal of expanding geographical control of the region using religion as a pretext to achieving this.
The primary means by which the expansion of Buddhist spaces is achieved and justified is through
the Sacred Areas Act which allows (among other clauses) the Department of Archaeology and the
state to acquire privately-owned land using the argument that it is a sacred area. The Muslim
respondents in Ampara claimed that this Act was being used by politicians to acquire land belonging
to the Muslims for the purpose of garnering the support of Buddhist constituents by catering to the
community’s insecurities. One example is Sambunagar where Buddhists have declared land belonging
to Muslims as sacred land. Another incident is regarding a Buddhist temple which has been (arbitrarily)
built on a land in Iraikkamam which belongs to a Muslim. This issue was one of the burning issues
between the Buddhist and the Muslim communities at the time of data collection in 2017. A similar
land issue in Wattamadu has led to legal action being taken. The Buddhist respondents, however,
argued that although there is a degree of coexistence between Buddhists and Muslims in the district,
the Sinhalese have not been allowed to construct shrines for religious worship such as in Manikkamadu
(another area of contention) where they have been prevented by the Muslim community from building
a vihara. They claimed this as being unfair as the Muslims build mosques in Sinhala villages.
Deegavapi, 15 an ancient Buddhist site, which is located in a Muslim division of the district
(Addalachenai), is another cause for contention between Buddhists and Muslims in Ampara. Despite
this being a Muslim Division, many Sinhalese have settled in the area ignorant of the fact that they are
settled in an area controlled by the Addalachenai Divisional Secretariat. Roads leading to Deegavapi
have also been constructed through surrounding Muslim villages in an attempt to popularize the
Sinhala name and identity ‘Deegavapiya’ in the region. This has also caused unpleasantness among the
Muslim and Buddhist communities. The Buddhist respondents also stated that the main issues in the
area are in relation to Digavapi and Manikkamadu. They argue that although the Muslims claim it as
theirs, there are ancient Buddhist relics that have been found in the area which justifies its Buddhist
identity. They claimed that Muslims are destroying statues of the Buddha that are being put up in that
area and obstructing attempts made by government officials to intervene. There is also a committee
that has been formed in the temple to look into this issue, led by monks (Members of village
development forum, Buddhist men and women, May 25, 2017).
A different tussle for land between the two religious communities is in relation to the distribution of
houses under the tsunami housing scheme in Nuraichcholai which was funded by the Saudi Arabian
government for Muslims. The houses have not been distributed to the Muslim community due to the
Sinhalese’ claim over it which led to a court case. The court’s verdict was to distribute the houses
among the three communities, but, the ruling is yet to be carried out.
Despite these tensions, the Buddhist respondents expressed a positive attitude toward their position
as Sinhala Buddhists in Ampara. They said that the different ethno-religious communities in the
15 See Dewasiri (2016) for a detailed history of the Deegavapi issue. 15 See Dewasiri (2016) for a detailed history of the Deegavapi issue.
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
district are involved in combined activities unlike during the time of the war and that there is
coexistence among the people. However, they specified that their main interaction is with Tamils,
and association with Muslims is minimal. This was also reflected in the attitudes expressed by Buddhist
women from Deegavapi who identified more with the Tamil community stating, “Hindus are an
innocent community, they are the worst off even after the war. You can see their plight if you visit the
Thiruthkovil area. We have many similarities with the Hindus. We share the same gods. Before the
war also our relations were very strong. However, the Muslims are the opposite. They are selfish and competitive with other communities to own the land” (Member of village development forum,
Buddhist female, May 25, 2017). This is an example of the complexity and context specificity of ethnoreligious relations whereby in Ampara, where Tamils and Sinhalese are the minority, the Sinhalese
empathize with the Tamils who were once viewed as the ‘other’.
While the Buddhist-Muslim conflict in relation to territorial expansion stems from Buddhist insecurities as a minority community, Tamil-Muslim relations over the gradual expansion of Muslim settlements could be attributed to the Muslim community’s minority status in the north-eastern region of Sri Lanka. However, the strategies used by the community to expand their territory, unlike the Buddhist approach, is to capitalize on the relative poverty of the Tamil community in the area. The Tamil respondents in Ampara accused the Muslims of gradually expanding their spatial boundaries by offering sums of money, far above market value, to Tamil individuals and purchasing land. Thus,
villages that were once populated by Tamils have now become Muslim villages. An example is
Sinnamuhathuwaram, a tsunami resettlement area for a Tamil community, which has now become a
Muslim area because Tamils needed money and sold their land to Muslims. Caste also plays an
important role in this issue of land, as land is one of the primary markers of caste affiliation. The
tsunami resettlement area is on land that is considered belonging to lower caste Tamils. Hence, this
land is eschewed by Tamils of higher castes. The Muslims, on the other hand, offer good prices for
such land and purchase them. The Tamil respondents, however, emphasized that caste was not a
serious basis of discrimination in Ampara, as it is in Jaffna.
Another means of gaining access to Tamil lands is through inter-marriage, unethical conversion, and
political influence. The Tamil respondents in Ampara viewed inter-marriage between Muslims and
Tamils as a deliberate attempt to appropriate Tamil lands. The Hindu respondents also cited
conversion of members of their community into Islam as a current problem. They stated that there
are about 5-6 Hindus in the Alaiyadivembu Division who have converted to Islam and are now
converting the rest of their families. This was viewed as a plot hatched by the Muslim community to
justify the building of a mosque in a Tamil area. Poverty was also highlighted as an important reason
for conversion. “There are no secure livelihoods or markets for Tamils. Therefore, Muslims brainwash
Hindus to convert for economic gain as job opportunities are available mostly in Muslim areas”
(Government officer, Hindu male, May 24, 2017). It was also noted that some Tamils converted to Islam during the ethnic conflict in order to escape the LTTE.
Territorial expansion in Ampara is also achieved through political influence in the district. An example is where Muslims allegedly engaged in gerrymandering by using a powerful politician to gazette that 34 families in a Tamil division now belong to the Muslim division, whereby expanding the borders of

the Muslim division. The respondents stated that such things are allowed to happen because Tamils are politically weak in the district. Both the Christians and Hindus unanimously stated that they are
not ready to accept Muslims, the chief reason being land disputes and their appropriation of Tamil
Territorial expansion for the purpose of exerting dominance, therefore, manifests as a result of
minority-majority insecurities where the Buddhists who are a national majority react to their minority
status in the Ampara district and the Muslims, who are a majority in Ampara, act in response to their
minority status against the Tamils in the Northeast. Land is a means by which both communities assert
dominance, but is appropriated through the manipulation/subversion of the land market, social (intermarriage), legal (Sacred Areas Act), and political capital of each ethno-religious community

2.6. Land and Entitlement: Post-war Considerations
The three-decade-long ethnic war in Sri Lanka and the many forms of displacement it induced has
also resulted in contestations over land between different ethno-religious communities post war. In
Mannar, it is impossible to discuss the issue of territorial expansion without consideration of the
history of the ethnic war which resulted in the LTTE ordering the expulsion of Muslims from the
North in 1990. This resulted in the Muslim community abandoning their lands and property
sometimes leaving them under the care of their Tamil neighbours and sometimes selling them due to
the belief that they would not be allowed to return. On their return to Mannar and even Jaffna their
gradual territorial expansion triggers feelings of insecurity among the majority Tamil community.
The relationship between Catholic Tamils and Muslims in the Mannar district has transformed over
the years, with the repercussions of the ethnic conflict and the expulsion of the Muslims from the
Northern Province impacting present day interactions between the two communities. According to a
key informant, in the past (i.e. before expulsion), inter-religious and ethnic coexistence was the norm
in Mannar, whereby, not even the party politics of post-independence Sri Lanka could disrupt it
(Priest, Hindu male, April 14, 2018). The expulsion of the Muslims by the LTTE in 1990 is considered
to be the turning point which created a significant rift between the two communities. Prior to this, the
relationship between Muslims and Tamils is likened to the relationship between “younger and older
brothers” respectively whereby a Tamil could chastise a Muslim in public for a wrongdoing without
causing uproar in the Muslim community (Field officer, Catholic male, March 6, 2017). This analogy
suggests not only the ‘filial’ amity between both communities in pre-1990s Mannar, but is also
suggestive of a hierarchical relationship arguably based on the greater population size of the Catholic
Tamil community.
On the return of Muslims to Mannar post war, economics and politics lie at the heart of CatholicMuslim relations and even Hindu-Muslim relations in the district. The perception of Hindu and
Catholic respondents was that the Muslims are returning to Mannar more prosperous than they were
before. Furthermore, the political patronage they receive from a prominent Muslim politician causes
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
rifts between the two communities. Two Catholic respondents were of the opinion that it is this
politician who is inciting conflict between the two communities for his personal political gain.
Therefore, at the heart of Tamil/Catholic-Muslim relations is the issue of land and growth of the
Muslim population. A retired Hindu medical officer expressed his concern about the disparity in the
birth rates between Tamils and Muslims and stated that soon the Muslims would outnumber the
Tamils (Medical officer, Hindu male, March 6, 2017). The increase in population among Muslims
(which could be argued is a natural occurrence over a period of twenty years) has also led to the need
for more land. On one hand, a particular Muslim politician is said to be using his influence to clear
forest areas and resettling Muslim families which has also resulted in an increase in the number of
mosques in the district. On the other hand is the claim by Muslims that the Catholic Church has
appropriated the lands that they had abandoned when fleeing the area and a demand that they be
returned. This has resulted in several disputes, particularly in border villages.
An example of such a dispute is two adjoining villages which are currently Catholic and Muslim villages
respectively. These adjoining villages are experiencing conflict over the presence of a Catholic chapel
on allegedly Muslim land. Several contesting arguments made by both communities make this issue
complex. The argument of the Catholic community is that the Muslims are claiming the land as their
own because the population of Catholics has decreased in the area and that of Muslims increased. The
Muslim community claims that the land in question is a traditional Muslim burial ground which was
later used to build a chapel with the influence of the LTTE after the Muslims were expelled. Several
counter arguments from the Catholic quarter state that the land originally belonged to the Catholic
Church which allowed the Muslim community to use it as a burial ground, that the Muslims had sold
their land after leaving Mannar between 2004 and 2007 when they felt that there was no opportunity
to return, and that some Muslims fled to India giving power-of-attorney to their relatives who had
sold the land. These factors add to the complexity of Tamil-Muslim relations in Mannar.
The Muslim respondents stated that apart from this one issue, there are no conflicts between the two
communities as the Catholic village is dependent on the Muslim village for shops and the post office.
There is also a long-standing Catholic school and church in the Muslim village whereby day-to-day
interactions take place between both religious communities without any conflict or confrontations.
However, some Catholic respondents stated that the Muslims had thrown stones at the church during
service and disrupted the service by playing loud music, but such violence had ceased after the court
affirmed the Catholics’ ownership of the land.
Disputes over land are also a result of displacement of Tamils during the civil war which resulted in
certain villages being abandoned. The Catholic respondents stated that as a result of displacement, a
village called Erukkalampiddy has been occupied by Muslims and is now a Muslim village. The
respondents claimed that there is a church in this village and the Muslims are not allowing them to
use it for worship. Some Catholic respondents from another village also expressed dissatisfaction
regarding the construction of a mosque adjoining their church.
Such transformations of Tamil villages into Muslim villages as a result of displacement, tensions over
ownership of land, and access to religious places of worship that occur as a result of both political
interventions and the consequence of war and displacement are triggers of conflict between
communities in Mannar.
While the conflict in Mannar is between Muslim individuals and the Catholic Church, in Jaffna the
conflict is between the Muslim community and the Northern Provincial Council. One of the tensions
between the Muslims and the Tamil community is in relation to resettlement. According to a key
informant, there were 4300 Muslim families in Jaffna when the LTTE ordered them to leave. The
families were allowed to take only Rs. 500 with them and many of these families sought refuge in
camps in Puttalam, Negombo and Panadura. They started to return to Jaffna in 2002 and at present
there are 700 Muslim families and 13 mosques in Jaffna (Moulavi, Muslim male, March 8, 2017).
Respondents stated that Muslims have not been included in the Indian-funded or local housing
schemes by government officials; of the 700 families, only 60 were given houses under the Indian
housing scheme (Moulavi, Muslim male, March 9, 2017). Furthermore, the Muslim respondent stated
that the Tamil National Alliance (TNA) takes the side of the Tamils irrespective of the facts. Muslims
are also encountering problems in reclaiming the lands they were forced to abandon. For example,
when they started to resettle in Pommaveli, the Divisional Secretariat Office did not allow it claiming
that the land is paddy land. One respondent stated that the issue of the returning of land to the original
Muslim owners is one that is ignored when raised at public meetings (Moulavi, Muslim male, March
9, 2017) However, a Tamil politician stated that there are no problems between Tamils and Muslims
in Jaffna and that it is Muslim leaders from outside the district who are creating problems. He also
stated that some Muslims had sold their lands and shops for large sums of money and that it is wrong
for them to claim land afterwards. He further stated that nobody in Jaffna would object to the
resettlement of Muslims. “We want the real Jaffna Muslims,” he said, noting that Muslim leaders from
outside of Jaffna were attempting to encroach on issues related to the district for political gain
(Politician, Hindu male, March 9, 2017). The Muslim respondents stated that they had had good
relationships with the Tamils in Jaffna before 1990. The expulsion of the Muslims caused a rift
between these two communities and the relationship has not yet been rebuilt. The issue of resettlement
and restitution of land aggravates tensions between both communities.

2.7. Access to Employment and State Benefits: Demands for Equality
Regional nationalism and ethno-religious majoritarianism is not only promoted by political and
religious leaders, but also permeates all state and regional institutional structures. Therefore,
discrimination on the basis of religion and ethnicity is both anticipated and in certain instances
experienced by minority communities.
All of the respondents from Mannar intimated that politics and political actors were at the heart of
inter-religious conflict in the district. Several inequalities arising from political patronage were raised;
the funding Muslims receive from Arab countries in the form of zakath16 which has enabled Muslims
to expand their territories in areas such as Musali, Murungan, Wilpattu, and along the Chilaw Road.
16 A portion of one’s income donated to charity – A fundamental aspect of Islam
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
Concomitant with the expansion of Muslim villages is the emergence of new mosques. Furthermore,
it was also stated that Muslim politicians are sourcing funds to develop the infrastructure of these
villages by building schools. Thus, there are pockets of developed areas in the Mannar District
adjoining rural non-Muslim villages (Representative of CSO, Catholic female, March 6, 2017).
Nepotism and favouritism by influential Muslim politicians in the case of securing government
appointments for members of the Muslim community is another issue raised by the Tamil respondents
in Mannar who expressed that they felt that their rights were being denied. However, the Muslim
respondents stated that Muslim politicians also use the funds received to help Tamil villages. They in
turn accused the Northern Provincial Council for discriminating against Muslims in the allocation of
government job postings. Conversely, the Catholics said that it is they who are being quashed due to
the influence that Muslims have at ministerial level. This discourse of victimhood adopted by both
parties appears to be one basis on which Tamils and Muslims interact and their relationship defined.
An important point of contention between the Hindus and the Catholics in Mannar is due to the
powerful role played by the Catholic Church in governance and decision making. Hence, there is a
feeling among the Hindu as well as the Evangelical Christian population that their interests are not
taken into consideration in administrative decisions. Though the previous Bishop Rayappu Joseph
was replaced by Bishop Lionel Emmanuel Fernando who is considered less fervent in the politics and
governance of Mannar, the general view is that the Church has a powerful influence in all spheres of
administration. Furthermore, a Hindu priest stated that the Members of Parliament who represent
Mannar are mostly Catholic and though they argue that they treat everyone equally, they take sides
(Priest, Hindu male, personal communication, March 6, 2017). An example of the exercise of this
authority cited by the Hindu respondents is the putting up of banners during Hindu festivals by kovils
for which approval has to be obtained from the police. When the kovil approaches the police with all
the documents duly completed, they find that an influential Catholic has already procured a
preemptive order to obstruct the erection of banners and cut-outs and the kovil is unable to contest
this order.
Similarly, the Christian (Non-RC) community spoke of problems experienced in establishing and
obtaining approval for the construction of their own churches, access to Non-RC religious instruction
in schools (though all schools except four – including one school in Vangalai – have introduced ‘NonRC’ as a separate subject under religious education) and obstruction by the Catholic Church and its
parishioners from felicitating Non-RC preachers who have contributed to the development of a
village. For example, in Jeevanagar, the Catholic Church and its parishioners had prevented a billboard
being put up to honour such an individual (Pastor, Non-RC male, March 7, 2017)
Another issue faced by members of the Non-RC community is at institutional level where the category
of Non-RC is subsumed under the category of Roman Catholic. Thus, a Non-RC pastor stated that
they are not invited to represent the community at government meetings and events. Therefore, while
Catholic priests, Hindu kurus, and Muslim moulavis are invited, Non-RC priests are excluded. This
suggests a need for awareness and inclusion of the different Christian denominations in the district.
The Tamil community in Ampara also shared their views on the victimization of their community due
to the political and administrative influence wielded by the Muslim community in Ampara. The Tamil
respondents stated that educated Tamils find it difficult to secure government jobs because
appointments are granted to Muslims through political affiliations. They also complained that most of
the lawyers, judges, and police officers in the district are Muslim, therefore, there is no fairness in
treatment and the Muslim police officers are disrespectful. Conversely, the Muslims stated that they
have been discriminated against regarding government job opportunities particularly in relation to toplevel administrative positions. According to the Muslim respondents (who are minorities in the
province), it is only the Tamils who secure those top-level administrative jobs. They also stated that
when the University Grants Commission selects students for university admissions, there is no
discrimination, but when it comes to jobs, Muslims are discriminated. They asserted that job
appointments should be granted according to the ethnic ratio in the district. These contradictory views
shared by the two communities suggest, on the one hand the lack of dialogue between both
communities leading to misconceptions, and on the other hand, the way in which perceived
inequalities pitch communities against each other.
Despite shared religious practices between the Buddhists and Hindus, respondents stated that the
Hindu community was antagonised by the predominantly Buddhist government officials in Deniyaya.
This is in the form of using vacant land adjoining a Hindu temple for a public playground and erecting
a statue of the Buddha alongside a bo tree on the premises. The Sinhalese youth, who frequent the
playground, are viewed as hindering the kovil and its activities and the erection of the statue of the
Buddha has raised suspicion as to the future intentions of the government authorities. Relations
between Buddhists and Hindus in Deniyaya were not always strained. The Hindu respondents stated
that prior to 1983, there was unity between Buddhists and Hindus in Deniyaya whereby the first pooja
of the Hindu kovil festival would take place at the Buddhist temple. The respondents argued that such
relations have deteriorated due to the ethnic conflict, the presence of the BBS in the village, politics,
and racist allocation of government funds where money was channelled towards the playground and
not the kovil (Members of inter-religious committee, Hindu and Christian men and women, May 26,2018)

2.8. Institutionalized Racism and Seizure of Institutions Belonging to Minority
Territorial expansion takes yet another form in the Matara district where a group of Muslim female
respondents expressed fears that the Southern Province Education Ministry based in Galle is
attempting to transform their traditionally Muslim school into a Sinhala school by appointing Sinhala
vice principals and teachers. They perceived it as a plot to start Buddhist worship in the school. The
Ministry has also not appointed a Tamil language teacher from the Tamil community to the school
even though the language at home for Muslims is Tamil. Muslim graduate teachers are also not given
appointments and there are court cases regarding this issue in progress. This gradual appropriation of
a traditionally Muslim institution by a state ministry demonstrates the imbalance in ethno-religious
Inter-religious Conflict in Four Districts of Sri Lanka
representation and institutionalized racism in state ministries, which potentially leads to the erasure of
and disregard for the institutions built and developed by ethno-religious minorities.
Such racism extends to actors within the education system as well whereby the Muslim women
respondents also stated that some people are disgusted by their attire (hijab) and ask, “Why don’t you
wear sari?” They complained that Muslim students are not allowed to wear Muslim dress (head scarf)
to Sinhala schools in Matara whereby even during sports, Muslim girls cannot wear covered clothes
(Member of women’s group, Muslim woman, June 18, 2017). The respondents in Deniyaya also
commented on the racist nature of the education system which contributes to the segregation of
Tamils and Sinhalese and results in racism being embedded at a very young age. Racism among
teachers and government officials was also seen as a contributing factor.
Conversely, the Buddhist respondents from Weligama stated that they felt that the Tamils and
Muslims in ministries favour people of their own communities in exams. As a result, they hold many
of the top government positions.

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Writer and Journalist living in Canada since 1987. Tamil activist.

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