Religious intolerance in the land of Ahimsa

Monday, 22 May 2023 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

While there is a continuous economic crisis, postponement of elections and a general breakdown of the criminal justice system with rampant corruption and unabated daily violence, the most pressing news item dominating the news cycle has been the alleged derogatory statement against Buddhism by a self-proclaimed prophet. 

Pastor Jerome Fernando is accused of making derogatory statements about Lord Buddha while addressing a gathering of members of his Born-Again Christian church that was broadcast live on social media. President Ranil Wickremesinghe is reported to have ordered a probe against the Protestant pastor for allegedly making controversial comments about Buddhists and followers of other religions.

The mainstream religious groups including the Catholic Church have been quick to distance themselves from the pastor. A spokesman for the Archdiocese of Colombo addressing the media said that Pastor Jerome Fernando who heads a religious congregation is neither a Catholic priest nor connected to the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka adding, “The controversial statement made by Pastor Jerome may influence the thoughts of his followers against another religion and may result in opposing views of the religion.”

This latest episode of supposed religious intolerance and the affront to the majority religion in the country exposes numerous fault lines in our fragile social order. The supposed insult of the pastor is that he claimed that the Buddha was seeking the light of Jesus. A statement that makes no absolute sense to any Buddhist who knows even an iota of the teaching of the Buddha. For the followers of the non-violent religion of Buddhism such a statement should be easily dismissed as one made by an ignorant individual. Yet, in Sri Lanka religion has been weaponised for political motive and for at least a decade many a nonissue has been raised as existential threats to create discord.

These politically motivated campaigns aimed at creating religious strife have aimed at minorities. The Muslim community bore the brunt of such actions in the past decade. From the sudden awakening of the halal issue to the claims of Muslim doctors sterilising Sinhala women, these conspiracy theories have been able to create enough tensions and suspicions for a majority of citizens to act irrationally. In the wake of such supposed threats, there are ‘saviours’ who promptly emerge to save the country, race and religion from these existential threats. 

Religious intolerance or provocation of religious harmony cannot only apply to selected individuals or selected religions. Organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena and the Ravana Balaya have propagated religious hatred against minority communities with total impunity for years. On occasion such as Aluthgama in 2014 individuals associated with these organisations have incited outright violence that killed several people. No one has lifted a finger against these culprits.

If Pastor Jerome Fernando is to be investigated, it is not for some provocative statement he has made but for his alleged involvement in international money laundering. It has been months since the revelation that a Zimbabwe preacher with links to the “prophet” was accused of gold-smuggling. Uebert Angel, who was in Sri Lanka in 2020 and 2022, to meet Prophet Jerome Fernando, was accused in Zimbabwe of offering to use his status to launder millions of dollars through a gold-smuggling scheme. When these allegations emerged, there was hardly a whisper from the law enforcement authorities on investigating the self-proclaimed prophet or his followers.

The latest saga of supposed religious provocation is in fact emblematic of the religious intolerance that is prevailing in the country. Even after the bitter violence of its recent history it seems Sri Lanka has not learnt a single lesson and is determined to go down the path of self-implosion.