Sri Lanka voted for a new president on November 16 – and Christians are praying that he will not usher in another wave of persecution against Christians.
Gotabaya Rajapaksa was the Secretary of Defense when his brother was president from 2005 to 2015. During that time Buddhist monks aggressively attacked Evangelical churches. Buddhism is the state religion.
Rajapaksa won the election with the support of the majority Sinhala Buddhist population.
He was immediately sworn in as president at an ancient Buddhist temple built by a warrior king.
Under his brother Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government, Evangelical churches were frequently assaulted by Buddhist monks during worship services. They severely beat pastors and burned churches. They riled up mobs to surround churches and throw rocks during worship services, and threatened Christians with death.
When pastors tried to file police reports, the police oftentimes failed to respond. Sometimes out of fear of the mobs. Or the officers were aligned with the Buddhists. At other times the police expected the pastors to produce evidence of who were the perpetrators.
Rather than arresting the attackers, police blamed the Christians. At times authorities banned Evangelical churches – which are growing, especially in villages – from holding services. Christians quietly met in homes until they could return to their churches, or built homes with a large room to hold church.
At one point, Buddhist monks tracked down a well-known pastor’s home. They mistook his neighbor for him, and brutally murdered the neighbor.
In 2015, in a surprise upset, the strongman Mahinda Rajapaksa – who ended a 30-year war by a devastating slash-and-burn campaign with upwards of 40,000 killed – lost his re-election.
New Government, New Persecutors
This Easter, Sri Lanka was the site of one of the worst terrorist attacks since 9/11. Three churches and four hotels were blown up by Islamists linked to ISIS. Over 250 people were killed.
Unlike the Buddhist monks’ attacks, the blasts were highly coordinated, sophisticated, and simultaneous on the east and west coasts of the nation.
The bombings shocked the world for their cruelty – and because Sri Lanka was not known as a hotbed of jihadists. It was widely believed that ISIS had recently been defeated in the Middle East. Yet the barbaric ideology spread to this island nation and Christians were once again their “favorite prey”.
Few people were aware that Evangelicals in Sri Lanka already faced persecution from Buddhist monks.
Government officials were blamed for not acting on intelligence provided by India days before that Islamists would attack churches.
Several Sri Lankans said they believed officials ignored the warnings out of habit – because they regularly dismissed attacks against Christians.
Seven months later, Rajapaksa won the presidential election and vowed at his swearing-in to protect all communities – yet give priority to Buddhists. He will maintain “Buddhism as the country’s primary culture and provide them with state support but will allow other groups to preserve their religious and cultural identities,” he said.
Pres. Rajapaksa appointed his brother Mahinda as prime minister.
The Rajapaksa family, who face international condemnation for alleged human rights abuses in the ending of Sri Lanka’s war, are also being investigated for corruption.
But after the Easter Sunday massacres, Sri Lankans wanted a strongman.
Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Soon after the election, the pre-emptive political strikes began.
A detective who was investigating corruption and high-profile killings under the Rajapaksa’s previous government fled Sri Lanka with his family days after the election. President Gotabaya Rajapaksa quickly imposed a travel ban on a Sri Lankan police unit – over 700 officers – that was investigating his family.
A Sri Lankan employee of the Swiss Embassy was abducted by government agents and forced to unlock her cell phone data. Her phone had information on Sri Lankans who are seeking asylum and the people who are helping them.
A news outlet critical of the Rajapaksas was raided by police who claimed to be looking for evidence of “hate crimes.”
Yet before these occurred, one political analyst predicted that Christians will disproportionately suffer under the new president. President Rajapaksa’s main constituency is Buddhists, and their leaders want to shut down the good news of Jesus Christ.
For many Evangelicals in Sri Lanka, the Easter bombings were a test of the faith they celebrate on Resurrection Sunday. Do they truly believe in eternal life with Jesus?
One Christian told me, “Our spiritual lives were awakened.”
“This was not the first time Christians in Sri Lanka had been attacked,” a young man said. “Our pastors taught us to respond to persecution by seeking God.”
“The government told churches not to hold services after the bombings,” a pastor said. “I planned to close our church the following week. But my congregation insisted we gather to worship.”
Zion Church lost 31 lives. When the suicide bomber arrived that Easter morning, he told the pastor’s wife that he really wanted to attend church.
A few minutes later he blew himself up near children who had just finished their Sunday School class. Fourteen children died. Their lesson that day was to beware of Satan who disguises himself then strikes to cause us to sin.
The bomber detonated at the property’s only exit, igniting motorbikes and turning the only pathway out into a wall of fire. Survivors escaped by climbing over seven-foot walls.
The jihadist’s exit was less dignified. His head blew off his body, crashed through the roof of a house, down the ceiling, and into a toilet.
At the church service I attended, wounded children wore bandages and slings.
Some of the injured could not yet come to church or go to school. Their wounds – emotional and physical – flare up. “The heat,” as one child described it, “is too much.”
The memories are too raw for traumatized family members to return to the site of the bombed church.
“We are weeping, but God is healing. Our faith has grown stronger,” Zion’s Pastor Roshan said.
Before the Easter blasts, persecution centered on Evangelicals. Long-established traditional churches generally stayed to themselves and were not bothered by radical Buddhist monks. Evangelicals, who are predominantly converts to Christianity, enthusiastically share their faith and start new churches.
When Evangelicals were attacked, the traditional churches were silent. One bishop reportedly responded, “They do not belong to us.”
After the Easter bombing of two Catholic churches and one Evangelical, that bishop reportedly said, “We are now one.”
Rumors spread that revenge would come on the Friday (Muslims’ prayer day) after Easter. Other than a few isolated incidents by grieving individuals or rebellious youth, Christians did not retaliate.
One politician said Christians’ peaceful response showed mercy like Jesus did.
Buddhist radicals, however, rioted and destroyed hundreds of Muslim homes, businesses and mosques. A Muslim-owned pasta factory, the largest in Sri Lanka, was destroyed and set on fire by over 200 rioters causing $4 million dollars in damage.
The day before the presidential election, Christians of different denominations gathered in the capitol of Columbo to pray.
Their response to the Rajapaksas returning to power, and possibly emboldening Buddhist monks to ignite fresh waves of attacks, was tempered.
One pastor told me, “We pray and bless Pres. Gotabaya to have wisdom to rule this land.”
A Sri Lankan Pastor’s Persecution Experience
Christian Freedom International is providing CCTV security cameras for the most threatened churches. One pastor said:
“We first began holding services in a thatched wooden hut belonging to a Buddhist family where only the mother had heard the Gospel. Within 2 months, there was no room in this little place. The Lord miraculously enabled us to rent a small shop in town.
There were signs and miracles, and the new place too began to fill up. Then the persecution started, organized by one of the largest and most prominent Buddhist temples. 52 temples gathered together to threaten us with death to our whole family if we didn’t move out.
A Buddhist monk instigated the people to bring in hand grenades if we didn’t vacate the premises.
The house we lived in was mobbed by Buddhist monks and about 75 men, most of whom were drunk. They threatened to kill me and my family if we didn’t move out.
Posters were put up all around our wall, as well as on the walls of the main road, threatening us with death if we didn’t move out by the given date.
Our house was surrounded in the night with men with hidden weapons. It is a miracle we survived the night. Our two little girls jumped over the wall and our little son was carried over and given to the neighbor to take care of.
Black engine oil and human excrement were mixed together and thrown on our walls several times, demanding that we leave, or death!
Once a month, a Member of Parliament was flown in by helicopter to the famous debating grounds, where a huge rally was held presided by him and Buddhist monks. They had PA systems that shouted slogans and called on the youth to wake up and destroy our church.
One of the local member’s election promise was that he would remove our church if he was elected.
The mobs were so bad that the police could not handle it. The Special Police were brought in to settle it, but they continued with their threats even in front of the police.
The police advised us to move to another town as the crowds were uncontrollable.
Christian leaders advised us to move as the police said this could become a religious riot and other towns could also be affected.
We were repeatedly attacked by large mobs, my family threatened with death, and our home with destruction.
When I inquired from the Lord, He said: “If you move out, you cannot come in again.”
The threats and persecution continued, but the church grew, glory to God!
I decided to stay with my family and face whatever happened. We now have about 250 believers in spite of all these persecutions. They were all Buddhists whom we have shared the Gospel with.
Two weeks ago, a man came on a motor bike and threatened me and the church.
We pray God’s blessing upon the caring people who are moved to help this ministry among the Buddhist people.
God bless you all!”
Wendy Wright serves on the Board of Directors of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and is President and CEO of Christian Freedom International.