Religion in Sri Lanka

Michelle Peets

The major ethnic group in Sri Lanka is the Sinhalese. It is estimated that the first Sinhalese arrived in Sri Lanka in the late 6th century B.C. from northern India and established the Sinha royal dynasty. The Tamil arrived in the 14th century from southern India and established a Tamil kingdom in northern Sri Lanka. Various areas of Sri Lanka have been controlled at different times by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British. Sri Lanka became a crown colony in 1802, and united under British rule in 1815 as Ceylon.  Ceylon became independent in 1948 and changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972.  As a British Crown Colony Sri Lanka was known as Ceylon; it achieved independence as the Dominion of Ceylon in 1948.  In 1972 the name was changed to ‘Free, Sovereign and Independent Republic of Sri Lanka’.  In 1978 it was changed to the ‘Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’ repudiating its dominion status. Ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil separatists boiled over into a civil war in 1983, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths.  A cease fire was brokered in 2002, but violence continued. The Sri Lankan military defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (the LTTE) in May 2009 bringing the civil war to an end.  

The population of Sri Lanka is estimated at 21.5 million people.  Approximately 70 percent is Buddhist, 15 percent is Hindu, 8 percent is Christian, and 7 percent is Muslim.  The three minority religions tend to concentrate in different areas of the countries, with Christians concentrated in the west, Muslims concentrated in the east, and Hindus in the north.  

The predominant Buddhist group is the Theravada Buddhists. Most of the Sinhalese population, the major ethnic group in Sri Lanka, is Theravada Buddhist. Most Muslims are Sunnis. Most of the Tamil population, which is the largest ethnic minority, is Hindu. The Christian community is predominately Roman Catholic, comprising about 80 percent.  Other Christian groups include Anglicans, Seventh-day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals, Dutch Reformed Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Various Evangelical Christian groups are present in Sri Lanka, but their memberships are small.  

The government, in general, strives to protect the interests of all religions. Matters related to family law, e.g., divorce, child custody and inheritance are adjudicated under customary law of the applicable ethnic or religious group.  Religious studies are mandatory in public school curriculum, and parents can choose for their children whether they should study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism or Christianity. Students belonging to other religious groups may pursue religious instruction outside the public school system. However, the Department of Education requires that religious education, whether inside the school system or outside studies, must follow certain curricula. 

Sri Lanka has a Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs comprising four departments, each of which is assigned to work with a particular religious group. Thus, there is a department working with Buddhists, one working with Hindus, one for Muslims and a fourth working with Christian groups. 

The country observes certain religious holidays as national holidays. For example, national holidays include Buddhist Poya days, Hindu Thai Pongal, New Year, Deepawali festivals, Islamic Hadji and Ramadan observances, the Birth of the Prophet Muhammad, Christian Good Friday, and Christmas. 

There have been reports of abuses of religious freedom, e.g., attacks on churches, Hindu temples, or mosques.  Some Christian groups have complained that the government tacitly condones harassment and violence aimed at them.  But, if a Christian group requests police protection, the government generally accedes to such request.  Some evangelical groups have complained that the government makes it difficult to register new churches under the Companies Act, or has denied them permission to register with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs. The evangelical denominations complaining of government harassment have asserted that lack of membership in the National Christian Council is a factor in their harassment.  The National Christian Council is an organization that represents the traditional Protestant churches.  

The government has continued to limit the issuance of temporary work permits for foreign religious workers and clergy. Work permits for foreign clergy are now issued for one year (rather than five years as in the past).  It is possible to obtain extensions of work permits. 

The right to “convert” people from one religion to another is a contentious issue in Sri Lanka, as it is in many countries in Asia and other places in the world. A high percentage of people in Sri Lanka do not believe that attempts to convert people from one religion to another should be tolerated. This belief seems to be consistent across all religious groups.  

At present, there is no existing legislation which restricts the right of individuals to proselytize members of one faith to convert them to another religion. However, this is a matter of great concern among many people in Sri Lanka.  Anti-conversion legislation was introduced in Parliament in 2004 by the Jathika Hela Urumaya Party (JHU), but was not enacted into law. The purpose of the bill was to criminalize “unethical” conversions. Anti-conversion legislation has not been removed from the agenda of the JHU, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion has noted that under the JHU proposed anti-conversion bill, Sri Lankan citizens would be prohibited from changing their faith, unless permitted to do so by a local magistrate.  

The Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs is reportedly considering the introduction of legislation that that would establish a Buddhist Publications Regulatory Board which would be empowered to regulate any publication purportedly in violation of Buddhism, its philosophy or traditions. The Ministry has drafted the bill, which is now with the Attorney General for his approval and will then be sent to the Cabinet of Ministers.  Once the legislation protecting Buddhism is enacted, then the plan is to enact another law to deal with publications that are contrary to the original teachings of other religions.

This information is taken from Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka: Law and Religion Framework Overview. To view the entire document, including provisions of the Sri Lankan Constitution dealing with religion, please click the link below.