Controversial missionary activities by fundamentalist Christian sects in Sri Lanka have inflamed passions among the predominantly Buddhist population to an extent that could rebound against older, established Christian groups such as the Catholics.
New evangelicals, often flush with American funding and eager to spread the fundamentalist gospel in the island, have been targeting the poorer sections of Sri Lankan society. Jehovah's Witnesses, the Assembly of God, Southern Baptists and several others sects have established churches in remote rural areas that have remained Buddhist through the centuries. They distribute food, clothes and other basic essentials and even cash to the deprived people, encouraging them to attend prayer sessions.
This has antagonized Buddhists, who have launched attacks on some of these churches and preachers. Many have called for a law prohibiting "unethical" religious conversion and demanded that evangelists set up shop in predominantly Christian, rather than Buddhist, areas.
The zeal of the fundamentalists has also affected Sri Lanka's established churches, especially the Roman Catholic community, the largest and oldest Christian church, introduced by Portuguese colonizers in 1505.
Matters came to a head last August when Sri Lanka's Supreme Court ruled in a landmark judgement that the constitution's guarantee of freedom of worship did not extend to the right to propagate religion.
The judgment also noted the constitution's acknowledgement of Buddhism as the country's foremost religion and the state's duty to protect and foster it.
The court was responding to a petition by Buddhists against the legal incorporation of a Roman Catholic order of missionary nuns seeking to carry out teaching, vocational youth training, nursing and care of the elderly, together with missionary work. It ruled that "the spread of knowledge to youth" by a Christian missionary order was inconsistent with the constitutional requirement to protect and foster Buddhism, the religion of 69 percent of the population.
Hindus (15 percent) are the next biggest group, followed by Christians (8 percent), Muslims (7 percent) and others (1 percent).
The Supreme Court also held that Christian institutions should not couple religious instruction with charitable deeds and agreed with the petitioners that young, inexperienced and elderly people could be lured to other religions by charitable activities.
Although fundamentalist Christians number less than 1 percent of the population, their activities are highly visible among the urban middle class and are spreading increasingly to the rural poor. More than 10 attacks on new evangelist churches have been recorded this year compared with five last year.
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