Sri Lanka’s Muslims Under Siege?
Image Credit: Joseph Hammond

Sri Lanka’s Muslims Under Siege?

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Colombo’s suburb of Dehiwala is probably best known for housing the Colombo Zoo. But late last month, it became the site of a wild protest at a small mosque, a protest that has many Muslim leaders in Sri Lanka worried.

On the morning of May 30, police officials reportedly informed the leader of the Dehiwala branch of the Association of Muslim Youth of Seylan that an illegal demonstration was likely to take place at the group’s mosque. Sheikh Ramsy was instructed to cancel madrassa lessons.

True to the warning, by midday, some 200 demonstrators led by several dozen Buddhist monks allegedly converged on the small Islamic center and began throwing stones and rotten meat over the gate at the mosque. Fortunately, most projectiles landed harmlessly in front of the mosque. Protestors shouted slogans demanding the closure of the mosque, claiming it was performing daily animal sacrifices, a charge the mosque denies.

“This charge is really unbelievable and shows how little they know about the religion of Islam. We only conduct sacrifices associated with the Eid ul-Adha and often the meat is distributed to poor families,” Sheikh Rasmy explains.

The incident is the latest in a string of serious incidents involving extremist Buddhist provocations against Muslims in Sri Lanka. In April, for example, a number of Buddhist monks disrupted Muslim prayer services in the village of Dambulla. The attackers claimed that the mosque, built in 1962, was illegal. Weeks later, monks are said to have drafted a threatening letter aimed at Muslims in the nearby town of Kurunegala, demanding Islamic prayer services there be halted.

Reza, a clerk at the Darul Iman Islamic Book House in Colombo, says he is confused by the outbreak of intolerance. “We in the Muslim community aren’t used to anything like this. But the last few months have seen new tensions across the country. We aren’t sure why this is happening now. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus we have all lived together for a long-time.”

During, the 30-year civil war between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam and the central government, the island’s Muslims, though Tamil-speaking, sided with the government against the LTTE. This was in part a result of thousands of Muslims being ejected from Jaffna in the early 1990s. During the conflict, the Sinhalese Buddhist majority courted the island’s Muslims, and many Muslims rose to prominent bureaucratic positions, while a handful even served in the Sri Lankan armed forces.

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