Posted on August 1st, 2015

by  Senaka Weeraratna


Buddhism which has been the moral and spiritual force in Sri Lanka in the last 2500 years, having survived a prolonged period (nearly 450 years) of persecution and discrimination directed at its adherents under western colonial rule, now faces a serious challenge from a growing Christian evangelical movement, represented mostly by foreign funded non-governmental organisations (NOGs) based in the country. This movement has as its overall aim the creation of a numerically and politically powerful Christian community in Sri Lanka (and also in South Asia) through a rapid conversion into Christianity of large numbers of Buddhists placed mostly in depressed and poverty stricken economic circumstances. The visibility of these NGOs in increasing number in traditionally predominant Buddhist regions, and the generation of alarming reports comprising narratives from affected individuals, and observations and studies conducted by third parties, has produced public anger and calls to combat this threat to the long term survival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka.

The use of unethical means such as financial, educational, medical, and the media by the Christian evangelical groups to induce Buddhists to change their religion has been viewed as a glaring abuse of the tolerance displayed by Buddhists towards other religions, and a violation of fundamental freedoms enshrined in the National Constitution.  The aggressive conduct of foreign missionaries in their attempt to spread Christianity and other Abrahamic religions, and undermine the traditional status of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, as has happened in South Korea in the last few decades, carries with it the seed for a potential religious conflict in the future.

The purpose of this essay is to examine in brief the aim of organised conversion, the Constitutional provisions, the history of Christian Missionary work in Sri Lanka, the methods and strategies employed to convert people, the reasons that compel people to change their religion, the implications for the status of Buddhism if conversions continue to take place on a large scale, and the options available to the Government of Sri Lanka to protect and preserve Buddhism.


Organised religious conversions inflame passions and human emotions. It is usually effected by the missionary denigrating the target person’s existing religious belief, which may encompass strong personal commitment or a long family history of service to that particular religion or a strong cultural tradition, by calling his belief either heathen, pagan, idolatry, wrong or sinful or a combination of these disparaging terms.

Organised conversions differ from instances of change of belief on the basis of one’s own free will, upon a consideration of the relative merits of the religion being abandoned and the religion being embraced. The influence of another person through an open friendly discussion and debate about the strengths and weaknesses of the relevant religions may have influenced the change of belief. These types of religious conversions do not generate a social problem, as they are usually few and take place on a random basis. Further, such a change of belief falls well within the exercise of one’s fundamental rights.

However when the established institutions of a particular religion develop an agenda for conversion on a mass scale and harnesses resources from both within and outside a host country, aimed at weak, poor and unsuspecting groups of people then such activity cannot be considered as acceptable conduct or the proper exercise of freedom of religion.

Conversion – A Constitutional View

  1. a) Constitutional provisions on freedom of religion

In Chapter lll of the National Constitution of Sri Lanka (enacted in 1978) dealing with Fundamental Rights, Article 10 states that ‘ Every person is entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice’

Article 14 (1) (e) of the Constitution states that ‘Every person is entitled to the freedom either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching’

Article 15 imposes restrictions on the exercise of Fundamental Rights. Article 15(4) states that the Fundamental Rights declared by Article 14 (1) (e) ‘shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or national economy.’

Further, Article 15(7) states that the Fundamental Rights declared in Article 14 ‘shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security, public order and the protection of public health or morality, or for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society.’

  1. b) Comments

Article 10 specifies the freedom of thought, conscience and religion including the freedom to adopt a religion or belief of his choice. The key work is ‘choice’ which means free consent or the voluntary adoption of another religion. If a missionary were to use either force, fraud, inducement or allurement as the means to convert a person who is in a depressed state of mind, can it be said that there is a proper exercise of ‘choice’ within the meaning of Article 10?

Article 14(1) (e) allows every citizen either by himself or in association with others to manifest his religion or belief in workshop, observance, practice and teaching. This provision permits a missionary (who is a Citizen of Sri Lanka) to preach and propagate his religion. However this freedom to propagate (and convert others) is subject to a number of restrictions specified in Article 15. If unethical methods such as bribes, financial assistance, education, medical services and employment are used to convert people and in such a way that it generates a breach of the public peace, then in the interests of racial and religious harmony or national economy, the State is empowered under Article 15(4) to intervene and restrict the exercise of this fundamental right.

Likewise the ground of national security, public order and the protection of public health or morality, or for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society, could be used by the State to restrict the exercise of the right to propagate and effect the change of the religious beliefs of others (Articles 15 (7).

 History of Christian Missionary work in Sri Lanka

The European entry into Asia, commencing with the Portuguese in the 16th century, was driven by two principal factors, namely the aim of colonising Asian countries for purpose of trade and exploitation of natural resources, and secondly converting the inhabitants of these lands to Christianity. The Portuguese arrived in Sri Lanka in November 1505, when a Portuguese fleet under Dom Lourenco, son of the Viceroy Don Francisco de Almeida reached the Port of Colombo. The Portuguese through a policy of cunning statecraft and ruthless terror were able to govern the coastal areas of the island for most of the next 150 years, until the Dutch replaced them in 1658. During this period the country witnessed the most obtrusive act of religious conversion when the Portuguese forced the grandson (Dharmapala) of King Buwanekabahu VII to renounce his Buddhist faith and adopt Roman Catholicism as his religion. In 1557, Dharmapala and his Queen were baptised under the names of Don Juan and Dona Catherina. Conversion was no longer a question of faith. The conversion of kings was sought because their subjects were expected to follow suit as a matter of course.

The Portuguese wrote to their King in Lisbon as follows: “If the King became a Christian, that would be sufficient for all to become the same: this your Lordship can take as certain, for such is the nature of these people.”(1)

King Dom Joao III ( King John the III)  of Portugal was an ardent follower of the Christian gospel. In 1546, he wrote to his Viceroy in Goa as follows: ” We charge you to discover all the idols by means of diligent officers, to reduce them to fragments and utterly to consume them, proclaiming rigorous penalties against those who shall celebrate in public or in private any festivities which shave any Gentile taint.” In respect to Christian converts, he added “they should also be encouraged with some temporal favours, such as greatly mollify the hearts of those who receive them.” (2)

The Portuguese claimed that it was their duty owed to their God to destroy Buddhism by every means in their power. The Sinhala Commission Report (Part 1) states as follows: “No trouble was spared to achieve that object: monasteries were razed to the ground, and their priceless treasures looted, libraries were set fire to. Whosoever dared to worship in public or wear the yellow robe of the ascetic was visited with death. The great institutions of Totagamuwe and Keragala, which had carried on the traditions of Taxila and Nalanda Universities were destroyed and their incumbents put to the sword. The land groaned in agony as one after another (Theros) fell, before the fierce onslaughts of the fanatical missionaries…(together) with the Buddhist religious edifices which had taken generations to build. Never were a glorious civilisation and a noble culture more brutally destroyed. The work of centuries was undone in a few years” (3)

The reputed historian P. E. Pieris observes that ” The King’s change of religion was a grave political blunder: the social organisation of his people was based on Buddhism, and his defection could not fail to estrange them from him, the more so when they were the revenues of their most venerated shrines being diverted towards Christian propaganda. It was not long before the Portuguese priests guided his counsels, Portuguese officers controlled his army, and Portuguese names were the fashion at Court.” (4)

Don Juan Dharmapala’s conversion was followed by the most reprehensible act of treachery in the history of Sri Lanka, when Dharmapala by a formal Act gifted the reversion of his rights to his Kingdom to King Philip l of Portugal (5). When Dharmapala died on May 27, 1597, King Philip l of Portugal laid claim to the Lion throne of Ceylon (6). The biggest legacy of the Portuguese however was the Roman Catholic religion they had introduced into Sri Lanka.

The Dutch ruled the Maritime Provinces of this country from 1658-1796. They were mainly Protestants. They were members of the Dutch Reformed Church. They too took great steps to spread their version of Christianity in Sri Lanka and marginalize Buddhism. They established Christian schools and trained a number of local people drawn from different races, to act as Christian priests.

The British took over from the Dutch in 1796 and governed the entire country from 1815 till 1948. Though they committed themselves to protect Buddhism under Article 5 of the Kandyan Convention that they entered into in 1815, this commitment was more or less honoured in the breach. The British allowed Christian missionaries to establish both primary and secondary schools, which were used among other things, to denationalise the students and deform Buddhist children wherever possible to make them vulnerable for conversion into Christianity. During the British colonial rule, Baptists, Weslyian, Methodists and Anglicans of the church Missionary Society became very influential and aggressive proselytizers in the Buddhist hinterland of the country.

Objectives of Missionaries

The Christian missionaries claim that their God has commanded them as set out in the Bible to spread Christianity all over the world. They further believe that unless one has faith in Jesus Christ as the only son of God it would not be possible to enter heaven. This view implies that Christianity is the only valid religion and all other religions are false and therefore inferior. A Christianity missionary considers it as a sacred duty to convert people into Christianity and thereby ‘save the souls of such unfortunate people.’


Extensive state patronage has been the prime reason for the growth of Christianity since its inception. When western countries commenced their policy of colonisation of the non-Euoropean world, the then Pope (Spanish-born Pope Alexander VI ) divided the world into two spheres of influence i.e. Spain and Portugal, ( The Treaty of Tordesillas signed at Tordesillas (now in Valladolid province, Spain), on 7 June 1494, divided the newly discovered lands outside Europe between Crown of Portugal and Crown of Castile (Spain))  in the hope that there would not be any unnecessary competition between them in the race to convert the maximum number of people. Western colonial rulers also realised that a ‘loyal’ population sharing a common religion, would be relatively easy to pacify and govern.

Today, most of the former Western colonial countries project themselves as secular nations. Nevertheless, the politics of religion still continue to influence decision making in these countries, and the Christian Church and Christian evangelical groups enjoy significant state patronage. In a book entitled ‘Exploring the American Gospel: Global Christian fundamentalism (1996) the authors Brower, Gifford and Rose have observed that “A new kind of Christian fundamentalism, once thought to be unique in the United States is spreading across the globe. A transnational religious culture is meeting a common need in the mega-cities of the developing world, in the slums which surround them, and in the outlying agricultural districts as well.” (7)

Another author, Caplan states that these Christian Evangelical groups had access to an operating budget of over US$ 500 million (8). Further these Christian fundamentalists have tended to see “American military and economic might as guarantors of their ability to evangelize the world.” (9) A study entitled “New Evangelical Movements and conflict in South Asia: Sri Lanka and Nepal in Perspective” by Sasanka Perera , then Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Colombo, examined in depth the expansion of Evangelical Christian activity in both Sri Lanka and Nepal. Dr. Perera saw this new wave of Evangelism as an assault on long standing cultures, and multi-cultural societies where various ethnic groups had lived peacefully side by side. The objective of the Evangelists is to homogenise the multi-ethnic and multi-religious Asian societies. Dr. Perera lays emphasis on the point that this kind of aggressive proselytisation can plant the seeds of conflict on a religious basis in Sri Lanka and Nepal. (10)

In contemporary Sri Lanka the composition of the various religious groups is as follows percentage wise, according to the 1981 census:

1)       Buddhists – 69.30% 2) Hindus – 15.48% 3) Muslims – 7.55% 4) Christians (including Roman Catholics) – 7.61%. (11)

The aim of Christian missionaries is to alter this picture by ‘playing a game of numbers’ i.e. by boosting the number of Christians in Sri Lanka through adoption of various methods and strategies.

Various Methods and Strategies of the Christian Missionaries

The new wave of Christian Evangelists originates mainly from USA, Europe and South Korea. Though their primary role is missionary work, they sometimes adopt various guises in their initial interaction with target groups. For example, they may be found acting in a counseling capacity, or as the management team of a BOI project located in a remote area, or as a free house construction agency, or as a charity focused on educating pre-school and primary and secondary school students.

Some of these Evangelists call themselves ‘born again’ thereby indicating an entirely new relationship with Christianity. One of the weapons in their armoury that they use to undermine the faith of Buddhists and Hindus is unceasing attacks on the use of idols in traditional rituals. Their strategy also comprises demonstrating ‘miracle cures’ by faith healers at largely attended public meetings.

According to Dr. Sasanka Perera, ‘The institutional framework of the collective evangelical movement in Sri Lanka consists of churches, para-church organisations, literature outlets, and other agencies concentrating on education, health and rural development and so on.” (12) The exact number of these groups currently active in Sri Lanka has not been fully determined largely as a result of the lack of a central registration system established by the Government. However Dr. Perera has given in his study a list of 73 such organisations linked to the Christian Evangelical movement (13). Unofficial estimates place the number of such organisations in the vicinity of 300.

In addition to the endeavours to convert people and increase the number of adherents of Christianity, this movement also engages in what is called ‘ church planting.’ This basically means the establishment of Christian churches in areas where there is no Christian presence. In the Evangelical vocabulary these areas are called ‘unreached areas’ which may mean not only the absence of Christians but also geographical districts where numbers of existing Christians and institutions can be increased (14)

Professor Buddhadasa Hewavitharana,  Emeritus Professor of Economics, University of Peradeniya, in a paper presented at a Conference of the Lanka Bauddha Sangarakshana Sabhawa, held on July 30, 2001 at the BMICH, has further elaborated on the plans/projects, methods and cunningly designed strategies employed by the missionaries in Sri Lanka to convert people to Christianity (15).

These plans, which have been formulated by a Methodist Physician in Colombo, have classified the so called ‘unreached people’ of Sri Lanka into 16 categories and a conversion strategy/programme has been designed to suit each different category. For example, this plan which has fallen into the hands of Professor Hewavitharana, refers to the existence of only 50 rural churches in a country which has 25, 483 villages, as a problem that needs rectification. The solution recommended in this plan is to:

  1. a) Plant a church in each village by each urban church of which there are 350
  2. b) Settle down conversion activists in the chosen village, and
  3. c) Each village church to plant new churches in other chosen villages, keeping in mind that due to rural transport difficulties, a villager cannot be expected to travel more than two miles, often even less (16).

The Ruhuna Project formulated under the Ceylon Every Home Crusade campaign, for the conversion of people in the Matara district contemplates three phases in the project. They are as follows:

  1. i) distributing booklets/tracts by visiting each home and hospital patients by using a large number of ‘volunteers’
  2. ii) planting churches in the villages

iii)                target – to reach more than 500,000 people in the district. (17)

The use of vile techniques including fraud and inducements to convert people all over the world is a fairly common practice. Alexander Berzin, Research Fellow, Columbia University, New York, made the following comment in respect to the situation in Mongolia, in an interview:

“The missionaries come in (the) guise of English teachers. They give money, comptuers to universities, scholarships to children of influential officials. They buy their way in” (Disrupting the faith? Newsweek Jan 13, 1997) 

It is also quite pertinent to bear in mind what Mahatma Gandhi said during his time in respect to the activities of Christian Missionaries. 

“If instead of confining themselves purely to humanitarian work such as education, medical services to the poor and the like, they would use these activities for the purpose of proselytising, I would certainly like them to withdraw. Every nation considers its faith to be good as that of any other. Certainly the great faiths held by the people of India are adequate for her people. India stands in no great need of conversion from one faith to another” (M.K.Gandhi “Foreign Missionaries” Young India  April 23, 1931, p. 83).

The Attraction of New Evangelical Groups – Some Reasons

According to the studies of Dr. Perera and Professor Hewavitharana, some of the reasons why Buddhists and other non-christians are attracted to new evangelical groups are as follows:

1)       depressed condition of domestic agriculture, which is the main occupation of most rural Buddhists (18)

2)       Rising rural unemployment and the on-going changing life-styles (19)

3)       Many of the Buddhists who are attracted to Evangelical groups come from socially or emotionally depressed backgrounds. Buddhist institutions lack adequate mechanisms to assist such people. In contrast, many of these evangelical groups have extended counseling or self-help rewards. They allow for close personal interaction between group leaders or local pastors and the aggrieved person. In the Buddhist establishment there is no such system despite the vast network of temples and monks (20).

4)       The Buddhist institutions are very slow in innovation in line with the fast changing socio-political situation in the country (21)

5)       Most Buddhist institutions and temples collectively have no programmes to assist refugees, or provide shelter for homeless children or provide rehabilitation services. In contrast, the well established Christian churches and new evangelical groups are active at village and town levels in helping affected individuals e.g. victims of political violence, come to terms with their grief.  Further, they also help people to cope with more mundane problems (22).

6)       The lack of an adequate Buddhist sponsored network of schools at village and town levels, and also in some urban areas of Colombo. The missionaries target pre-school and primary school children for conversion and de – nationalisation, i.e. the deliberate ‘distancing’ of the Buddhist students from their culture, history and heritage.


The missionary strategies to convert people mainly Hindus and Buddhists of Asia to Christianity is not something new. This plan has been part of the political agenda of Western European countries for the last 500 years. However, today in most of these Western countries there is a marked trend among educated Europeans to abandon Christianity as a pivotal faith. Church attendance has dropped considerably in these countries, and the Church buildings and premises are often advertised for sale.

The sizeable drop in the numbers of Christian adherents in the West, may have also contributed as a pressing factor towards the making of a new agenda by the Christian Establishment including the Vatican, to proselytize aggressively and gain new converts rapidly in Asia.

Sri Lanka in its efforts to meet the challenge of conversion should learn from the efforts undertaken by the Hindus in India to put a stop to unethical conversion. There is a whole body of new literature published by the Hindu Vishva Parishad on these issues, which could be made use of as good resource material by the Sinhalese Buddhists.

However the fundamental step is to ensure that the Government of Sri Lanka earnestly implement Article 9 of Chapter ll of the National Constitution which states that:

“The Republic of Sri Lanka shall give to Buddhism the foremost place and accordingly it shall be the duty of the State to protect and foster the Buddha Sasana, while assuring to all religions the rights granted by Articles 10 and 14(1) (e).”

The protection of Buddhism by the State as mandated in the Constitution, requires the enactment and enforcement of appropriate legislative mechanisms to combat unethical conversion. There are some useful precedents in the legislation of Nepal and in some Indian States such as Orissa. For example, Clause 14 of Part 3 of the 1962 Constitution of Nepal dealing with the Section on ‘Fundamental Rights and Duties’ states as follows:

” 14) Right to Religion: Every person may profess his own religion as handed down from ancient times and may practice it having regard to the traditions. Provided that no person shall be entitled to convert another person from one religion to another”.

It is important for the Buddhist public to raise their vigilance as regards the activities of these missionaries, while at the same time lobbying the Government to monitor and probe their conduct.

The failure to curb unethical conversion in Sri Lanka may result in a disastrous outcome similar to what has happened in South Korea. The percentage of adherents of Buddhism has been so much reduced ( 85 % to 30% ) within the last few decades that South Korea is no longer called a predominantly Buddhist country.

One thousand years ago Buddhist Asia ranged from Afghanistan to Japan where the vast majority of people in all the countries in between subscribed to various traditions of  Buddhism and some to Hinduism. The map has changed dramatically. It is sad to note that today once strong Buddhist countries such as Myanmar, Thailand and even Mongolia are threatened by the forces of Abrahamic religions which are, using a truism ‘at the gates’ of these countries. Buddhist space and territory is shrinking by the day in traditional Buddhist lands.

For how long can Buddhism survive in Asia?


  1. P. E. Pieris, Portugal in Ceylon 1505-1658 (Cambridge: Heffers, 1937) 5
  2. Peiris, Portugal … 5
  3. Report of the Sinhala Commission (Part 1) Colombo: National Joint committee, 1998) 34-35
  4. Peiris, Portugal …7
  5. Peiris, Portugal … 8
  6. Peiris, Portugal … 9
  7. Steve, Brouwer, Paul Gifford & Susan D. Rose, Exporting the Americna Gospel: Global Christian Fundamentalism, (New York: Routledge, 1996) 1, quoted in Sasanka Perera, New Evangelical Movements and Conflict in South Asia: Sri Lanka and Nepal in Perspective  (Colombo: Regional Centre for Strategic Studies, 1998) 22
  8. Lionel Caplann, 1995. “Certain Knowledge: The Encounter of Global Fundamentalism and Local Christianity in Urban South India” The Pursui of Certianty: Religious and Cultural Foundations (London: Routeledge, 97) quoted in Sasanka Perera, New Evangelical Movements
  9. Nancy T. Ammerman, 1994 “The Dynamics of Christian Fundamentalism: An Introduction in Martin E. Mart and R. Scott Abbleby eds., Accounting for Fundamentalism (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press) quoted in Caplan 1995: 97 and Sasanka Perera, 1998: 22
  10. Sasanka Perera, 1998:109
  11. Quoted in Sasanka Perera, 1998: 44
  12. Perera: 49
  13. Perera: 49-51
  14. Perera: 62
  15. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, Why and Wherefore Pre-Planned Conversions to Christianity by Developed Countries and Why and Wherefore is Sri Lanka is a Good Hunding Ground to Them – Economic and Social Reasons, A Paper Presented at the conference of the Lanka Bauddha Sangrakshana Sabhawa held at the BMICH on July 30, 2001
  16. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, 2001
  17. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, 2001
  18. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, 2001
  19. Buddhadasa Hewavitharana, 2001
  20. Sasanka Perera, 1998: 64
  21. Sasanka Perera, 1998: 64
  22. Sasanka Perera: 1998, 65

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