By Janaka Perera*
Sri Lanka is celebrating the 2561st year of Vesak on an international scale starting on May 10. The question however is whether the organizers and the foreign participants in the event will pay sufficient attention to the facts highlighted in a recent report of the Bangkok-based World Buddhist University (WBU) on the socio-economic and cultural challenges facing Asian Buddhists with a case study in Sri Lanka.
Designed to give an insight to the challenges facing Sri Lanka’s grassroots, the study was undertaken by Communications & Media Specialist Dr. Kalinga Seneviratne assisted by Samanmalee Swarnalatha.
The study is titled, ‘The Scourge of Poverty and Proselytism’ which the international media has almost totally ignored and sometimes misinterpreted. As the report correctly observes although 70 percent of Sri Lanka’s population is designated as Buddhist, in the rural areas Buddhists make up the majority of the poor.
The research for the report was begun in Sri Lanka in 2015 with financial assistance from the WBU to create a database on this problem to dispel ignorance and was released by the WBU in March this year.
Throughout the past two decades a vociferous debate has ensued in this country over the activities of Christian evangelists and missionaries. They have been engaged in harvesting souls in varying degrees since the beginning of Western colonialism. These proselytizers tend to think they have a divine right to ‘save’ others from ‘hell’ or whatever they mean by it. This campaign was at its peak during nearly 450 years of European colonial rule in Sri Lanka.
The report discusses the brutal attempts by the Portuguese to wipe out Buddhism from Sri Lanka and the cunning schemes of the British to undermine Buddhist education in the island by facilitating the expansion of Christian missionary schools. WBU report also analyses three major studies done since independence in 1948 on the status of Buddhism in Sri Lanka and points out that most of the recommendations in these reports to empower Buddhists in the country, especially in the socio-economic sphere, have been ignored by successive governments.
Today the craze for conversion is seen in an aggressive breed of Christian evangelists rather than in Sri Lanka’s mainstream churches like the Catholic, Anglican, Protestant or Methodist. As the WBU report clearly notes poverty among Buddhists (and Hindus too) has become a huge reservoir for the new ‘Martyrs of God’ to ‘fish’ with material benefits and cash offered as bait. For the local agents of foreign evangelical missions religion is big business that paves the way for them to lead comfortable lives with ample funds.
During the tsunami of December 2004 some of the foreign evangelists were stealthily distributing Bibles and Christian leaflets among the surviving victims along with clothes and other relief items whereas Buddhist monks working among non-Buddhist tsunami victims never tried to distribute Buddhist literature among the latter.
According to prominent Anthropologist and Sociologist Sasanka Perera, these evangelists have made this island one of their bases of operation in the “competitive vocation of soul saving….” In fact they act as if they are trying to eradicate a disease – Buddhism.
However when some non-Christians groups provoked by such unethical and dubious deeds resort to violence these evangelists loudly protest about Christians being persecuted. This is quickly picked up by the Western media which never bother to probe the root causes of this friction.
Although Muslims are not very much into conversion today they want Islam to rule all polities and enforce Islamic laws parallel to the secular laws of country where they are a minority.
As the report notes:
“It has become fashionable for the international media and some Buddhist leaders and Buddhist groups in East Asia and the West to criticise Buddhists in these countries when they take direct action to defend their communities, without trying to understand the socio-economic situations that are giving rise to this.”
According to the report Buddhist social services function with very little assistance from abroad and consequently they are unable to counter activities of Christian and Islamic groups who have huge financial resources from overseas to target Buddhists for conversions exploiting their poverty.
Presenting a resource paper on unethical conversions at the International Buddhist Conference on ‘The Buddha Sasana in Theravada Buddhist Countries’ in Colombo 14 years ago (January 16-18, 2003), two participants Dr. Anula Wijesundera and the late Gamini Perera drew attention to a message by an evangelical group, which called for the ‘planting’ of a Christian church in every one of the 25,483 villages in Sri Lanka.
“The weakness of Sri Lankan Buddhists is that they are reactive and not proactive” says Dr. Seneviratne. “They need to engage more with the international Buddhist Community network and enlighten international Buddhists about the dangers Buddhists face in Sri Lanka. This should not be left to the government. They will never do it. A strong internationalized Sri Lankan Buddhist civil society is the need of the hour”.
Dr. Seneviratne said that he would like to do a similar study with WBU on Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand as these Buddhist countries also face similar threats from the same sources.
“To do this we need to raise funds and convince rich Buddhists in Asia that it is perhaps more meritorious to help raise awareness of the persecution of Buddhists and help to empower them socio-economically than spending millions on building grand temples and huge Buddha statues. We have enough of these in Asia.”
*This article first appeared in the Asian Tribune and is being reproduced by arrangement with the writer.