fears the country could slip into renewed civil war, with minority Christians in the crossfire.
The violence came shortly after a suicide bomb attack in the capital killed 11 and wounded the army commander, which was followed by military air and artillery strikes on rebel positions in the north and east.
With attention focused on the battle fields, there are growing concerns Sri Lankan forces will be less willing, or able, to protect Christians despite reports that militant attacks on churches continue.
The outbreak of violence between the seperatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels and the army came shortly after Sri Lanka’s Parliament appointed a 19-member committee to review a proposed bill that would outlaw "forcible" conversion.
LIMITING CHRISTIAN FAITH
Despite pledges by the new government to uphold religious freedom in Sri Lanka, the Bill on Prohibition of Forcible Conversion, better known as the anti-conversion bill will limit the expression of the Christyian faith, rights groups say.
The Bill was tabled in July 2004 by a party made up of hard-line Buddhist monks, the Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU) as an attempt to halt conversions from Buddhism to Christianity.
The legizlation demands prison sentences of up to five years and a stiff fine that could reach $1,500 for anyone found guilty of converting others "by force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means." The sentence can reportedly be extended to seven years and $5,000 if attempts were made to convert women, children, prison inmates, the mentally or physically challenged, refugees, military or police.
PREACHING GOSPEL "ESSENTIAL"
Especially evangelicals as well as Catholics have challenged the law saying preaching the Gospel to non-Christians is an essential part of their faith in Christ.
It is unclear how committed President Mahinda Rajpakse is to the anti-conversion meassures, altough the JHU signed a deal with him in September 2005, promising electoral support in return for a more aggressive approach to negotiations with the LTTE rebels.
The anti-conversion law was officially not part of the final election deal, but JHU leader Athuraliye Rathna Thero told local media that "the threat of conversion to other religions will not exist when Rajapakse becomes president."
BILL LIKELY ADOPTED
Christian observers in Colombo say the bill is likely to become law despite concerns that it may violate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Analysts say Parliament could stop it but only if the vote is secret as otherwise not enough politicians would have the courage to stand against it for fears of losing support.
Besides political pressure, militants have also pressured churches with attacks, including an attack last week, April 23, when an angry Buddhist mob reportedy attacked a Methodist church in Piliyandala, southeast of Colombo, during Sunday’s worship service.
Earlier on Palm Sunday, April 9 and Easter Sunday April 16, protest rallies were apparently held outside the church. During a court hearing on Tuesday, April 25, a 500-strong Buddhist crowd called for a ban on services, but the judge granted freedom for the church to continue worshiping, reported Compass Direct a Christian news agency.
BUDDHISTS RECEIVE ORDER
The court also ordered Buddhists not to disturb future services. The Buddhist monk leading the attack was charged but released on bail until May 8, when a second hearing is scheduled.
A mob also attacked the home of an Assembly of God pastor in Alpitiya, Galle district, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka, on March 24, according to media reports. The pastor had been receiving death threats for some time, including on March 19 when excrement and burnt oil were thrown at the house of neighbors who were sympathetic to the pastor and his family, Christians said.
On March 22, another neighboring family who had provided drinking water to the pastor found that their well had been poisoned, claimed Compass Direct. In a statement the National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka said churches were being attacked or threatened almost weekly, although it was not as “intense” yet as last year.
Christians comprise roughly 6 percent of the country’s predominantly Buddhist population of over 20 million people, according to estimates. (With reports from Sri Lanka and BosNewsLife Research).