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Riots in Sri Lanka Spark Agitation for Peace

A number of the country's Buddhist monks and prominent lay teachers - who have themselves faced attacks and intimidation from the Buddhist Power Force -- have also been active in stressing that violence and hatred are incompatible with the core teachings of the Buddha.

"I simply did not expect so many people to be signing this plea for peace," said a human rights activist I phoned in Sri Lanka this week as a wave of deadly communal riots hit the island.

A startling feature of the riots is that they are fuelled by hard-line Buddhists, including monks in their distinctive saffron robes, who call themselves the Buddhist Power Force.

Their supporters - possibly as many as 7,000 according to some reports - descended on a small town in the south of the island, where Buddhists and Muslims have lived together for generations.

Shouting anti-Muslim slogans and hurling gas bombs and stones, the mob

set fire to shops and homes in the area. At least three people are reported killed and a further eighty have suffered serious injuries including shooting and knife wounds. Three mosques and several Muslim prayer houses were torched, although it is still hard to confirm the details.

Local journalists say the government has imposed a news black out.

Shocked by the scale of the violence, people of all faiths throughout the country are urgently calling for peace - and stressing that these hate crimes violate the most elementary principles of Buddhism.

"We stand in solidarity with the victims and survivors of the villages," reads the petition my friend the activist has launched. She told me: "It is not just the usual campaigners who are signing up to this petition, but many others as well."

Other concerned citizens have posted a more strongly worded petition on "All forms of hatred, violence against religious and other minorities and attacks on democratic rights must be opposed," it proclaims. "We appeal to all human rights activists, organizations and individuals to demand immediate action on the issue."

Ensuring inter-religious harmony and good communal relations is one of the cornerstones recommended by a high-level "Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission" set up by the government in 2010 to chart a new era for the nation at the end of the nearly 30-year war between state forces and the Tamil Tigers.

But a report to the United Nations Human Rights Council earlier this year documented 227 attacks on mosques and Muslim businesses, as well as 64 attacks on Christian churches and pastors, and similar attacks on Hindu temples throughout the country last year.

"The failure of the government to address the violent attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship," says the report, "drives the minority communities to despair and has undermined possibilities of meaningful reconciliation."

A similar fear means that citizens opposed to extremism say they are willing to sign petitions and issue statements, but not to protest on the streets. They fear being attacked themselves, unprotected by the police. Many are convinced there is high-level government support for assaults on the minorities. They point to the failure of the authorities to make arrests, prevent attacks or protect the victims.

While the news spotlight and social media highlight the riots, what has gone unreported are the efforts by Buddhist and other leaders to stop the violence spreading and to advocate peaceful co-existence.

An inter-religious council in the district where the most severe rioting took place worked with the police to set up street patrols in adjacent areas. These were led by leaders from the country's four main religions: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity.

As they walked the lanes and streets, they broadcast messages by megaphone and distributed leaflets warning the villagers: "Extremist groups are trying to arouse communal and religious hatred. They will also try to provoke you. However, you have been living in harmony and brotherhood for generations. Let's preserve that."

Although they feared the violence could spread to their area, close to the main attack, no incidents have been reported from there so far.

A growing number of networks and groups are forming, among them the Forum for Peaceful Coexistence, a group of professionals and social workers in the country. Originally a Muslim blog, it has opened its doors and changed its name because of the support it received from people of all faiths and communities. "By hearing the view points of people belonging to all races and religions we can best understand each other and learn to live in peaceful coexistence," the new site says.

Working to promote inter-religious understanding, dialogue and build community relations is now on the agenda of most of the country's leading civil society organizations and advocacy groups, including the National Peace Council and Centre for Policy Alternatives who have issued a comprehensive statement.

"The evidence of goodwill is abundant at the community level wherever inter-religious gatherings take place," says Jehan Perera, Director of the National Peace Council. "This is especially the case in areas where ethnically mixed populations live in close proximity. Small groups of extremists can create disturbances in these areas. But the ethos of the larger majority is to live in peace and harmony."

A number of the country's Buddhist monks and prominent lay teachers - who have themselves faced attacks and intimidation from the Buddhist Power Force -- have also been active in stressing that violence and hatred are incompatible with the core teachings of the Buddha.

"What we are seeing is not Buddhism," said Dr. A.T. Ariyaratane, founder of the country's Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement which promotes rural development. "Buddhism does not believe it putting labels on ourselves or each other, but rather seeing all beings as part of the interdependence of life, and caring for all of them."

"I am willing to give my last breath teaching the principles of peace, harmony and reconciliation," the head of one of the country's many rural temples told me recently. "That is the Buddha's true message."

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