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Sri Lanka announces crack down on 'conversions' and ‘unregistered’ religious centres

Sri Lanka’s Religious, and Cultural Affairs Minister Vidura Wickramanayaka told a gathering of Buddhist monks that steps would be taken to raid unregistered religious centres that are reportedly “engaged in religious conversions,” in a move that looks to strengthen Sinhala Buddhism on the island.

His remarks came just a day following an overnight police raid at the Vedukkunaari Temple where Maha Shivarathri observances were taking place in Vavuniya

The Minister instructed the Commissioner General of Buddhist Affairs to inform the police chief to carry out the raids on these “unregistered religious centres”, during a meeting with prelates at the ministry premises.

The discussion with the prelates was reportedly on Buddhist places of worship, Buddhist monks, and ‘religious distortion.’ The minister had also assured the monks that the title of Venerable would be added for Buddhist monks and Reverent for Bhikkhunis (female monks) in their national identity cards and passports. 

Wickramanayaka last year intervened on behalf of Buddhist monks in their attempt to seize the site of an ancient Tamil temple in Mullaitivu. He was accompanied by army soldiers and archaeology department officers and led an event at the Kurunthoormalai in which a new Buddha statue was placed and consecrated at the site of the Athi Aiyanar temple. The temple site, on a hilltop in the Kumulamunai area of  Mullaitivu, has been the target of intense landgrab efforts by Sinhala Buddhist monks, met with fierce resistance from locals which in 2018 led to a court order decreeing that no changes could be made to the site. The court also stated that the archaeology department had abused its power in allowing Buddhist monks to survey the area.

The assurances from the minister came just a day after 8 Tamils were arrested by Sri Lankan police at the Vedukkunaari Temple in Vavuniya.

Protests have been held in Batticaloa over the weekend over the illegal arrest of 8 individuals who were conducting Maha Shivarathri pooja at the Vedukkunaari temple in Vavuniya. According to the lawyers, the individuals were ill-treated and even denied a request to change their clothes, which they continued to wear since the night of the arrest on Friday

The police statement mentioned that they were arrested for starting a fire, the temple administration mentioned that permission had been sought ahead of the observances. On the night of Shivarathri, riot police were deployed, and police placed roadblocks preventing water bowsers from parking near the vicinity of the temple. Devotees had to walk nearly 5km to obtain drinking water. The police then arrested the chief priest and several others for conducting the rituals. They are yet to be released on bail. 

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