Friday, 30 August 2019 05:46

DIRCs Raise Religious Freedom Issues with UN Special Rapporteur

The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, met Kandy, Vavuniya, Puttalam and Batticaloa District Inter Religious Committee (DIRC) members during his 12-day visit to Sri Lanka. Buddhist, Christian, Hindu and Muslim religious leaders raised several issues of concern with Mr Shaheed.

The Muslim leaders said that one of main complaints brought before the DIRCs was that Muslim teachers in government schools have been prohibited from wearing headscarves after the April 21 attacks on churches and hotels, despite that fact that it has been an accepted practice and was not against the law.

Girls sitting for exams were not allowed inside the examination hall wearing headscarves. Muslim women visiting hospitals and other government institutions were being discriminated against and refused admission for wearing headscarves.

Another grievance was that the police were slow to react to complaints of discrimination and harassment. Muslim leaders also told Mr Shaheed about the economic impacts felt by their community after people stopped patronising their shops as fallout from the April 21 attacks.

Muslim religious leaders said that there were misconceptions and ignorance about Islam among the public.

DIRC members explained the impact of the violence against Muslims in the Kandy and Digana areas that occurred in March 2018 and described the measures taken by DIRCs to diffuse tension and promote harmony between the two communities. The Citizen’s Truth Commission report commissioned by Kandy DIRC was handed over to Mr Shaheed at the meeting.

Other religious leaders also expressed their concerns over various situations. An Evangelical church leader said the government had denied him permission to build a church while a Hindu leader was worried about conversions of Hindus to Islam and Christianity. Buddhist monks felt that there should be one law for all instead of separate laws for Muslims.

All religious leaders were concerned about the fact that although there were provisions in the Constitution against religious discrimination, ordinary people could not take any action against such discrimination due to unequal access to the justice system.

Mr Shaheed asked DIRC members to seek redress through the UN complaints system if their issues were not addressed. The UN would then press the government to take action.

In a report at the end of his visit to Sri Lanka, Mr Shaheed said that simmering ethno-religious tensions required urgent action by the authorities to strengthen respect for freedom of religion or belief.

“There is a serious deficit of trust among ethno-religious communities in Sri Lanka following the deadly Easter Sunday bomb blasts and subsequent mob violence this year, and these tensions must not be ignored,” he said.

He added that the long-standing traditions of religious harmony and co-existence in Sri Lanka, as well as tolerance and sustainable peace, were at risk from religious and political violence, lack of accountability, distrust of institutions and resentment against perceived majoritarian privilege.

Mr Shaheed will present a report with his conclusions and recommendations to the Human Rights Council in Geneva in March 2020.