INTERNATIONAL

Fear grips Sri Lankan Christians

HOMAGAMA (SRI LANKA), JAN. 16. Barely 25 km from the Sri Lankan capital, this Buddhist-majority town saw an attack on a Roman Catholic Church on Wednesday night, raising a sense of fear among the handful of Christian families living here.

"We now come to church with a sense of fear,'' a woman devotee of the St. Michael's Church, told .

As one of the few families that live close to the church, the night of January 14 has scarred her views of living in a Buddhist-majority suburb of Colombo.

Requesting anonymity, she said, "We are just few families and may be under threat if you print our name, but we want people in India to know what is happening here.''

Homagama's 155 Catholic families are a minuscule part of the Sri Lanka's estimated 1.1 million Christians who comprise 6.87 per cent of the population. A majority of the Christians are Roman Catholics (6.06 per cent).

The attack is a part of a recent disturbing trend in southern Sri Lanka, with faint but clear signals of a re-emergence of hardline Buddhist opinion. Christian evangelists are accused by Buddhist hardliners of forcible conversion. Christians, particularly Roman Catholics, deny these charges.

"That is not true of the Catholic Church,'' said Gregory Anthony, the priest of the St. Michaels's Church.

A build-up of threat and intimidation elsewhere in the island preceded the attack, he said.

Two armed policemen stand vigil as part of the 24-hour security by the local police station, barely a kilometre away.

Sources close to the President, Chandrika Kumaratunga, who is also Minister for Internal Affairs, said this morning that no crime would be tolerated.

A form of solidarity was also visible with two priests from other Christian denominations — Anglican and the Assembly of God — visiting the Catholic Church today.

Attacks on Christians, says Lakshman Peiris, an Anglican priest from Colombo, have been `subtle', but `sustained' over the past few months.

But Fr. Peiris sees it as a reflection of the hardliners "who want to disrupt the peace'' rather than of the majority Buddhists.

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