Catholic priests urge U.S. restraint on Sri Lanka's use of emergency powers

A group of Catholic priests have appealed to Washington to ensure Christian and Muslim rights are not suppressed by Sri Lanka’s new national security legislation.

In a letter, more than 40 Catholic priests, which include Sri Lankan and U.S. nationals, urged Secretary of State Michael Pompeo to persuade the Sri Lanka government to ensure sweeping emergency regulations do not intimidate minority communities, that the right to worship for Christians and Muslims is protected, and the US supports an international independent investigation into the Easter Sunday bombings.

Prevention of Terrorism Act

On April 21, Easter Sunday, a series of explosions rocked Sri Lanka. Three bombs placed in churches – two Catholic and one Protestant – and in three high-end hotels in the capital Colombo while tourists and affluent Sri Lankans were at Easter breakfast, killed 250 and injured over 500.

The Sri Lanka government blamed the local organization National Thowheed Jamaath (NTJ) for the bomb blasts, with foreign support. The ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack two days later, but the nature of its support is yet to be determined. 

Shortly after the explosions, the Sri Lanka adopted new emergency regulations to supplement the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act already in place. Emergency regulations allow for arrest and detention with little judicial oversight, curb media freedom and threaten the death penalty or 20 years imprisonment for offences such as possession of stolen goods. Armed with these laws the Sri Lanka has banned Muslims wearing niqabs, searched property without warrants and declared curfews.


The letter goes on to say, “We are deeply concerned about any actions that curtail the ability of both the Catholics and the Muslims to enter their places of worship freely. While the Government of Sri Lanka has acknowledged that it was the lack of adequate steps to safeguard civilian security that enabled these attacks to occur, it must not now respond with hyper-militarisation. Our brothers and sisters in the Tamil-speaking North and East of the country still suffer from the trauma of the civil war that ended in 2009. The Government posting military guards outside the churches in the North and East are therefore retraumatising them and deter them from finding solace and peace in the church. Therefore, we urge you to impress upon the Sri Lanka government that all religious communities should be free to worship and participate in community-based religious activity.”

A telling example of the military’s insensitivity is at St. Anthony’s church in Colombo, a site of the Easter Sunday bomb blasts, where armed navy personnel were even standing by the church’s alter. In the highly militarised North and East of Sri Lanka, while ostensibly guarding churches, the military’s intrusive behavior, especially within the premises of the places of worship, has alarmed Tamil Christians.

In schools in the North and East of the country too, the military is intimidating children and adults – who almost all Tamil – with invasive body-checks and haranguing the parents in coarse language who come with children. An eloquent indicator of the different ways the military treated children in the North to those in the South is how their school bags are checked. While in the North the military inspect bags, in the South it is done by parents, teachers and senior students.

However, emergency powers were not able to prevent Sinhala mobs attacking mosques, Muslim homes and businesses, in the Northwestern part of the country. The rioting soon spread to other parts of Sri Lanka where Muslims live in proximity to Sinhalese. An attack in Minuwangoda left a Muslim man dead and mosques, homes and businesses gutted by acts of arson.

The clergy’s letter expresses concern that the Sri Lanka government’s lack of response to attacks on Muslims would exacerbate ethnic and religious tensions: “There was no prior history of animosity between Muslims and Catholics or Christians in Sri Lanka. Therefore, any response to these attacks should take stringent measures to maintain harmony, without tearing apart Muslim-Christian amity or fueling violence and militarization.”

The appeal has been made at a time Sri Lanka's foreign ministry officials were meeting their US counterparts to discuss ways to boost bilateral defence and military ties.

Fearing reprisals by the Sri Lanka government the priests who signed this letter have requested their names be withheld for this article

The text of the letter can be read here.



Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka

  • JDS is the Sri Lankan partner organization of international media rights group, Reporters Without Borders (RSF). The launching of this website was made possible by the EU’s European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), of which Reporters Without Borders is a beneficiary.