August 12, 2013 1:16 pm

Sri Lankan mosque closed as religious tensions mount

Muslim groups in Sri Lanka agreed on Monday to close a controversial mosque in the capital Colombo that had been the focus of clashes with Buddhist groups and raised concerns about growing religious tensions in the South Asian island.

A curfew in the area around the mosque expired on Monday morning, following two nights of restrictions, as police attempted to calm tensions following violence between Muslim residents and Buddhist protesters over the weekend.

Ethnic tensions in Sri Lanka have traditionally occurred between the largely Buddhist majority Sinhalese, who make up around three-quarters of the island’s 20m residents, and its minority Tamils, a divide that provided the basis for the country’s two-decade civil war, which ended in 2009.

However more recently the island has seen a series of violent attacks against Muslims propagated by extremist Buddhist groups, often led by monks from an organisation known as the Bodu Bala Sena.

The violence mirrors tensions between Buddhist and Muslim groups elsewhere in Asia, notably violent clashes in northern Myanmar earlier this year, although most analysts suggest the disputes are not directly connected.

The US Embassy in Colombo expressed concern about the weekend’s events and urged local authorities to investigate the causes of the attack.

“This incident is particularly troubling in light of a number of recent attacks against the Muslim community in Sri Lanka . . . We call for prosecution of perpetrators in this attack and an end to religious-based violence,” it said in statement.

The unrest comes at a time of renewed focus on Sri Lanka’s human rights situation, in advance of a high-profile Commonwealth summit, due to be held in Colombo in November.

It also follows criticism of the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March, which focused on alleged war crimes committed during the civil war, but included concerns about ongoing threats to minority groups.

Sinha Ratnatunga, editor of the Sunday Times newspaper in Colombo, says: “What is disturbing the Muslim community is that there have been attacks of this nature happening in different parts of the country.

“Each one on its own is not a big issue, but taken together it seems to be part of a bigger picture in which the majority is increasingly intolerant.”

A group of Muslim ministers from Mr Rajapaksa’s governing coalition issued a statement condemning the attacks this weekend, but local groups have also criticised the government’s response.

“It seems clear that the government is not arresting the miscreants, and are treating them with kid gloves,” says Jehan Perera, director of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka, an advocacy group.

“Part of the reason is that the government, after the war, has put a lot of emphasis on Sinhala nationalism, and this has empowered the monks to do what they want, and now the government doesn’t feel it can stand up to them.”

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