Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The thorny subject of removing places of religious worship

For those who respect the rule of law and the constitution, Sri Lanka is a multi- religious and multi-cultural society. Therefore the protection of religions, and cultures is enshrined in the Constitution, unlike some countries that are not similarly tolerant. If we want to change the status from that to one of a Buddhist state then that should be done in a legal manner in line with either a change in the constitution or a plebiscite if the constitution so provides.

No matter what religious bigots may profess, Sri Lanka has not as a nation, taken responsibility for exclusively protecting Theravada Buddhism or that the country is solely a Buddhist country. The constitution just states that “Buddhism should be safeguarded and nourished” and if that wording is open to interpretation, we may have to ask the Supreme Court to determine what was meant by that statement.

In the latest incident in appears to me that the Prime Minister who is also the Minister of Buddhist Affairs has intervened in a knee jerk manner, by making false statements of the agreement of Muslim leaders in Government for the relocation of a mosque which is supposedly currently situated within the confines of the designated sacred area around the Dambulla Temple. I do not know the facts, and I find that it is confusing to ascertain the truth from the media, which shamefully has not been able to clearly explain the situation.

Forgive me if I have the facts wrong, but in areas designated for a religion, another religion cannot erect places of worship. The question then is when this area was designated a sacred area in 1982, was the mosque in question, in a small or another building in existence? If so, why was it not an issue all this time? Apparently there is a Hindu Temple also within the sacred area, which should also be removed. It is therefore not in order to suddenly raise this issue, and take the law into their hands and try to remove or demolish it without due process. Why now?

The law of the land must be addressed first. The trustees of the Dambulla Temple must get legal advice in the matter as to what it is they can do. The law of the jungle as it applied a few days ago is just a very thuggish illegal act. Knowing the law, the delicate issue must be addressed with the local Muslims who are the worshippers at this mosque, and determine if a compromise solution can be found.

The offer of the Dambulla Raja Maha Vihara of funds to rebuild the mosque in another location at this stage is out of order, until the legal issues are settled, and a solution sought through the Courts. Unfortunately both sides have taken this issue in an emotional manner, not conducive to proper discussion.

Religion is a very emotive issue and in the Sri Lanka context where it is uniquely placed giving holidays for all four religions’ holy days, on the surface religious tolerance is enshrined. However beneath this veneer there are religious zealots in all the faiths, but as Buddhism, is the main religion, there are more from this camp, who question the rights of other religions that are enshrined in the constitution.

In a period of other problems, the Government of the day uses religious fervor over an incident to garner favor, not caring for the rights of a minority. This to me is what appears to have happened. To them a religious dispute such as the one we are engaged in right now and which still has to be resolved, is perfect fodder to their electoral base that they are protecting Sinhala Buddhists from other religious threats, to secure a vote bank by this trickery and treachery to stay in power.

There is no question that religious intolerance appears to be fermented by the Clergy who are clearly with the Govt. camp, and the Govt. has taken the view that this issue is one of an asset to them, when they are seen to be defending the rights of Buddhists from infidels. They will stoop at nothing to stay in power.

Furthermore the precedent set by this action, does not bode well for religious freedom, where any area technically can be designated a sacred area for Buddhists, and any construction prior to that designation, can be removed. This invests a lot of power to the local priest to ask for extra lands to be designated to the local temple, especially when there are other religious places of worship in the vicinity. It is therefore very unsafe for any other religion, to see the lack of the rule of law in such situations, and the perceived law of the jungle in operation, where sense is absent.

This regrettable state of affairs, where a few powerful interests can circumvent and subvert the rule of law, can ignite another wave of protests by the religion under fire with resulting dire consequences.

It is most important that all actions are taken only once a good legal team determines what is acceptable and what is outside the law. Otherwise Banana Republic tag where there is no respect for law and order will be result for SL. It is not worth casting doubt over the intention of the Country, as it will affect the investment climate adversely as an example and it is important that proper legal measures are taken in a transparent manner to solve this matter as soon as possible.

It takes a responsible enlightened government to nip this in the bud, otherwise the consequences can be diabolical and missed opportunities regretted. I therefore appeal to the powers to act responsibly with leadership to what is right and just.

Not what the gallery want.

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