x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sri Lanka allows mosque expansion despite Buddhist objections

Sri Lanka's government has said it would give the go-ahead to plans to develop a mosque in central Colombo, despite objections from Buddhist hardliners who have targeted members of the minority Muslim community in a spate of recent attacks.

Sri Lankan Muslims walk past a vandalised mosque as police stand guard in Colombo.
Sri Lankan Muslims walk past a vandalised mosque as police stand guard in Colombo.

COLOMBO // Sri Lanka's government has said it would give the go-ahead to plans to develop a mosque in central Colombo, despite objections from Buddhist hardliners who have targeted members of the minority Muslim community in a spate of recent attacks.

Requests to expand the mosque had been repeatedly rejected until Tuesday, Muslim clerics said, because the building work would mean having to cut down parts of a large bo-tree, considered sacred by Buddhists.

A three-storey mosque was built in its place last month but it was attacked on Saturday, which triggered clashes between Muslims and Sinhala Buddhists and led to a two-day curfew in the neighbourhood in the centre of the capital.

There has been increasing violence against Muslims in Sri Lanka since last year, mirroring events in Buddhist-majority Myanmar.

In Myanmar, hardline Buddhist monks have been at the forefront of campaigns against Muslims.

In Sri Lanka, a group known as Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or the "Buddhist power force", has been trying to win over Buddhists to their own campaign. But the BBS has denied any involvement in the latest mosque attack.

"The Urban Development Authority will hand over the land to the earlier mosque and the bo-tree will also be completely removed to facilitate the construction," said MKB Dissanayake, the secretary at the Ministry of Buddhism and Religious Affairs.

"The expansion of the mosque also will be allowed. The government will help construct the earlier mosque, if they [Muslims] request help."

At the same time, the government said it would close down the new mosque, although it gave no reason for the decision. Buddhists in the area said that the new mosque was built without proper approval.

As elite, armed police officers looked on, local authorities began to cut down the bo-tree to make way for the expansion.

Local residents said that police could have prevented the weekend violence if they had acted more decisively. CCTV footage taken from a nearby house showed people attacking the mosque despite the presence of police.

According to the Sri Lanka Muslim Council, which represents most Muslim organisations in the country, the incident was the 25th attack on mosques reported to them across the island nation.

A European Union delegation in Colombo condemned the rise in attacks on Muslims.

"The right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of worship are fundamental to democratic societies and should be protected by the state," it said.

"The EU looks to the Sri Lankan authorities to ensure justice through speedy, impartial investigations and to enable all Sri Lankans to exercise their human rights freely."

Buddhists make up about 70 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 20.3 million. Muslims make up about 9 per cent.