Pope Francis faces a big challenge when he heads to Sri Lanka this month – dealing with the bitter hostility of the island’s extremist Buddhist monks

Last year the satirical news site The Onion published a story about Buddhist extremism. Its headline read: “Extremist cell vows to unleash tranquillity on the West.” It described a video posted online in which a monk threatened “an assault of profound inner stillness” and said “no city will be spared from spiritual harmony … We will bring the entire United States to its knees in deep meditation.”

In Western culture the Buddhist monk is an unshakably serene and peaceful figure, unwilling to hurt a fly. Yet Christians and Muslims in Sri Lanka are likely to have a different picture. The sight of saffron robes may bring to mind not tranquillity but an angry crowd, a shaking fist or a brick thrown through the window.

Buddhist aggression against minorities in Sri Lanka rose sharply last year. In January three Pentecostal churches were attacked by mobs. At least one of these mobs was led by monks. Furniture and windows were smashed and a prayer centre set on fire. In June anti-Muslim riots in the south-west of the country brought violence on a much larger scale. Four people were killed, 80 injured and 10,000 displaced. Neighbourhoods were torched and homes ransacked.

Pope Francis, who is expected to arrive in the country on January 13, will be deeply aware of the dangers Sri Lanka’s minorities face. His first challenge is to avoid making them worse.

Tensions have long existed in Sri Lanka between the Sinhalese Buddhist majority and the rest of the population. These were pushed to the background during the decades-long civil conflict with the Tamil Tigers, a secular insurgency finally crushed in 2009.

Since then extremists have found their voice in a group called Bodu Bala Sena (“Buddhist Power Force”), or BBS. The group, founded in 2012, says it only seeks to defend Sri Lanka’s Buddhist identity and distances itself from any violence. Yet the rioting against Muslims followed rallies held by BBS nearby. The spark was an altercation between two Muslims and a Buddhist monk, but a fiery address by the BBS leader, Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, escalated the tension dramatically. To an angry crowd he exclaimed: “If a Muslim or any other foreigner puts so much as a hand on a Sinhala person – let alone a monk – it will be the end of all of them!”

The group is not keen on Pope Francis either. After the Holy See confirmed his three-day visit, BBS issued a statement, saying: “Pope Francis must apologise to Buddhists for the atrocities committed by Christian colonial governments in South Asia.” Assuming the trip is not cancelled because of its proximity to Sri Lanka’s presidential elections, the Pope will have to tread carefully.

Buddhist extremism has become a danger not just in Sri Lanka but in Burma, too. Similar riots against Muslims have killed at least 200 people in the past two years. A Burmese movement called 969 has emerged that, like BBS, sees Muslims – and to a lesser extent Christians – as predatory aggressors out to destroy Buddhist culture.

Francis has little experience of Buddhism to draw on. As Archbishop of Buenos Aires he built close relationships with Jews, Muslims and Protestants. On his visit to the Middle East he was accompanied by two old friends, a rabbi and an imam, whose embrace at the Western Wall transmitted a powerful image to the world. But Buddhists are barely a presence in Argentina. His journey to South Asia – the first by a pope since St John Paul II went to India in 1999 – will mark a step into the unknown.

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His chief antagonists are Gnanasara, the hot-headed leader of BBS, and Wirathu, leader of 969, who jokingly calls himself “the bald Bin Laden”. The pair, both monks, have close links. Last year they met twice, and Wirathu attended a BBS conference in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, addressing 5,000 supporters. They will be eyeing the Pope’s visit closely, particularly on the second day, when Francis meets Buddhist and other religious leaders. Any clumsy reference to the country’s recent war or its colonial history could lead to difficulties.

The monks’ causes have become popular because many in Sri Lanka and Burma feel that Buddhism is under siege. Despite both countries being majority Buddhist there is a sense that the religion is being edged out by more aggressive faiths.

To bolster this view the groups’ supporters argue that Buddhism has long been on the losing end of history. They recall the time 1,000 years ago, before the spread of Islam and the growth of Western empires, when nearly all of Asia was Buddhist. Now countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Bangladesh are mainly Muslim and the Philippines is mainly Catholic. Burmese and Sri Lankan nationalists see Buddhist diminishment in terms of military advancement by Christians and Muslims. This aggression, they feel, continues today. As the official BBS website says: “The call for Buddhist nationalism is a last resort to … ensure history is not repeated.”

Worryingly for Pope Francis, the groups seem to blame Europe’s churches for instigating this aggression. The BBS website describes colonialism in South Asia as “the brutal onslaughts of Western Christian armies at the instigation of the Vatican, Dutch Reformed Church [and] the Church of England”. (Sri Lanka was governed in turn by the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British.)

Attempts to proselytise by Christian groups today are seen as another, more subtle form of colonialism. Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists and various Pentecostal churches, viewed as expansionist, are therefore often targeted by extremists.

But the real threat, according to the BBS and 969 movements, is Islam. Wirathu, in an interview with Time magazine in 2013, complained that Muslims were “breeding so fast, and they are stealing our women, raping them … They would like to occupy our country.” (The same year he told the Times newspaper that he would like 969 to be compared to the English Defence League – “not carrying out violence, but protecting the public”.) There are fears, not borne out by the figures, of a Muslim population explosion, even though Muslims number less than 10 per cent of Burma and Sri Lanka’s populations.

In Sri Lanka anxiety may be exacerbated by economic reliance on the Middle East. One in 10 Sri Lankans works abroad, mostly in the Gulf region. A lot of these are women serving as maids or cleaners who send money back home to build a house for their family or to send their children to school. Mahinda Deegalle, a professor of humanities at Colgate University in New York, says this not only puts a strain on families but has a disruptive influence on Buddhist culture. “People who come back bring different ideas,” he says.

Prof Deegalle claims that initially BBS was focussed on an “internal revival” and was not concerned with minorities. Buddhist practices, he says, had suffered not only from three decades of war but also from the familiar trends of modernity – consumerism, secularisation and a “visible decline in morality”, with practices like street drinking becoming more common.

What makes the situation more delicate for Pope Francis is that BBS’s ideas attract quite a lot of sympathy from Sri Lanka’s majority Sinhalese. One commentator has reported taxi drivers in Colombo complaining openly about Muslims having too many children. The BBS anthem, written by a prominent Sri Lankan singer, even became a popular mobile phone ringtone last year. (Its lyrics have a blunt message: “Buddha, what you preach is in danger / The religion is in darkness / The time has come to rise … by destroying the unrighteous.”) Paikiasothy Saravanamuttu, executive director of the Centre for Policy Alternatives, a think tank in Colombo, says that, while many people would not support BBS openly, what the group says “finds a resonance in a broader constituency of people”. He explains it has a “large number of sympathisers”, if not supporters.

Even trickier is that some accuse the government of sympathising with BBS. They point out that the president’s brother, the defence secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, was a guest at the unveiling of a BBS-linked academy. He insists, though, that he has no formal links with the group. But while it may be true that the government is sympathetic towards Sinhalese nationalism, BBS supporters themselves feel betrayed by their government. On YouTube Gnanasara can be seen railing against ministers who “holler on the stage in the name of Buddhism to say we are racists and extremists”.

So far BBS has not targeted Catholics, who make up the vast majority of Sri Lanka’s 1.2 million Christians. The Church is well established, having been brought by Portuguese missionaries in the 15th century, and seen as closer to the establishment. Indeed, the president’s wife, a former Miss Sri Lanka called Shiranthi Rajapaksa, is a Sinhalese Catholic.

But the Catholic Church is still vulnerable to Buddhist extremism. Attacks on churches are not uncommon. In 2013, for instance, vandals smashed a statue of the Virgin Mary and tabernacle, and tried to burn the Eucharist at a church in Angulana, near Colombo. Four years earlier a mob of 1,000 smashed the interior of a church in the town of Crooswatta, assaulting parishioners with clubs, swords and stones, leaving several to be treated in hospital.

In the face of all this, Church leaders tend not to denounce Buddhist nationalism too vigorously. Instead, they cultivate good relations with mainstream Buddhist leaders and the president, Mahinda Rajapaksa. This strategy has drawn criticism, with one critic accusing the Church of being “limp-wristed” in the face of persecution.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo and president of the Sri Lankan bishops’ conference, appeared to answer these criticisms in an interview with UCA News last month. Asked about accusations that he is “very close” to Sri Lanka’s president, he said that, in Sri Lanka, “we Catholics are facing severe constraints”, explaining: “When I was Bishop of Ratnapura, my diocese had some 21,000 faithful in the midst of a population of 1.5 million people. As a bishop I could not say things that would have endangered my people.” He added that, as Archbishop of Colombo, “I have to think about my people”.

The cardinal also laid considerable blame on politicians for not attempting to tackle the country’s divisions. He said: “If I wanted to make a diagnosis, I’d say the patient has a headache. We change the pillow, but the damage persists because we do not administer medication.”

If the Pope arrives in Colombo on January 13 as expected, he will face an extraordinary situation. Five days earlier Sri Lanka will have held a presidential election. The campaign will have been intensely fought and there may have been violence. His task, in this volatile situation, is formidable – to help unite a fractured nation without provoking to violence those who see Christians as the enemy. Engaging with Buddhist leaders, providing a powerful gesture of Catholic-Buddhist harmony – these are ways to win the country over. But he cannot skirt around the issues. He must address the tensions head-on, and deliver an impassioned call for Sri Lanka to move beyond them.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (02/01/15)