A Christian Witness in Sri Lanka

A Christian Witness in Sri Lanka

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Pastors in Sri Lanka like these expect constant opposition from Buddhist nationals.

It was pitch-dark when our rented van turned down a rutted dirt road and pulled up to a tall metal gate. After we stepped out of the van, a smiling young man opened a door in the gate and invited us inside the church. Our Sri Lankan friend urged us to hurry so neighbors wouldn’t notice that foreigners were visiting. As we entered the brightly painted church and slipped off our shoes, the young man arranged plastic chairs into a circle and Pastor Kasun offered a warm greeting. 

Although the pastor is from the small island nation’s capital, he now serves in a fundamentalist Muslim village on Sri Lanka’s eastern coast. The village, where the pastor was sent as a church planter several years ago, is less than an hour away from the home mosque of the mastermind behind the Zion Church bombing in Batticaloa in 2019. 

During Pastor Kasun’s few years in the village, the church he planted has grown to about 100 people. And as a result, he has received many death threats. “Right there,” he said, pointing toward the gate through which we had just passed, “I thought I was going to die.” The pastor then described how an angry man had accosted him with a gun outside the church. He said that as the man yelled and waved the gun at him, he closed his eyes expecting any moment to be killed. But nothing happened, and when he opened his eyes a few moments later, the man was gone. 

As our conversation continued, Pastor Kasun pointed at a diagram taped to the wall. “In this neighborhood,” he said, “we have to work in a special way.” While the congregation that meets in the church building comprises about 100 people, at least 20 small house-church groups also meet throughout the neighborhood Pastor Kasun oversees. They have to be careful, he explained, because of the villagers’ deep animosity toward those who leave Islam. Christian converts routinely suffer family rejection and attacks. 

When we asked the young man who had welcomed us how he had come to faith in Christ, he said he was led to Christ through the witness of Pastor Kasun. And to our surprise, we learned that the young man is not a former Muslim but rather a convert from Hinduism, illustrating the cultural diversity of the region. 

Although Sri Lanka is mainly Buddhist, the eastern part of the country is dotted with Hindu and Muslim communities. The Hindu villages are easily identified by their colorful temples, while the commerce-driven Muslim villages are marked by women in headscarves shopping at packed market stalls. 

A Buddhist Nationalism

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Buddhists celebrating a religious ceremony pass a church in southern Sri Lanka. They make sure Christians know their place.

Christians in Sri Lanka suffer persecution from multiple fronts. While Pastor Kasun is persecuted primarily by his Muslim neighbors, just as the church in Batticaloa was attacked by Muslim radicals connected to ISIS, Sri Lankan Christians are more commonly persecuted by Buddhist militants. Some Buddhist leaders view Christians as a threat to their political dominance, resenting the Christians’ nonconformity with community and cultural norms. As on the nearby Indian subcontinent, nationalism is also gaining momentum. Sri Lankan nationalists seek to create a purely Buddhist Sinhalese nation, pushing out minority Hindus, Muslims and Christians. 

When needed, VOM helps repair damaged church buildings, replace destroyed items and support pastors affected by Buddhist persecution. In addition, VOM is currently supporting pastor training across the nation as well as providing support to other front-line workers. Many Sri Lankan believers are first-generation believers who don’t have the Bible study tools and skills they need. VOM therefore provides tools such as Bibles and audio Bibles to help them mature in faith. 

Although Christians are a distinct minority in Sri Lanka, they are already sending missionaries around the world. VOM supports these efforts and is also helping mobilize youth to enter the mission field.  

Christians in Sri Lanka have long accepted persecution as a normal part of the Christian life, identifying themselves with the global persecuted body of Christ. But they are in some ways isolated from and unaware of what their brothers and sisters suffer in other countries. “Thank you for telling us,” a young pastor in a Buddhist village told us. “Now we can pray better.”