By Champika Ranawaka –
It was only in May this year massive anti-Muslim protests were held in central London sending jitters through the spine of David Cameron’s government.
In France and the rest of Europe the Muslim community has come under regular attacks while the Denmark based Stop Islamisation of Europe (SIOE) moved to join hands with similar anti-Muslim groups in France, Germany, Norway, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Russia, Finland, and Sweden.
SIOE also has its support groups in the United States of America where it was only this June a college student was put behind bars for slashing the throat of a Bangladeshi taxi driver in an anti-Islamic frenzy in East Manhattan.
Sri Lanka may not be the best country in the world as regards the treatment meted out to Muslims. Still it is certainly not as bad as the West and all signs are there that, though still stumbling, some progressive steps are being taken to quell ethnic tensions.
Also closer to home, in India, the Kashmiris continue to live in a living hell and the thousands of mass graves found in Indian controlled Kashmir are evidence of a systematic ethnic cleansing which is going on. The latest bout of violence in the region has dashed any hope of redemption.
Amidst all this, the final solution reached over the Grandpass issue affords a beacon of inspiration despite initial hiccups.
Unfortunately the West rushed to fan the flames of ethnic tension even while the moves were made by concerned parties to bring about a solution to the dispute.
The US embassy in Colombo has yet to explain as to why it issued a misleading and an erroneous statement that a mosque in Grandpass had been attacked when the mosque remained intact.
It’s high time that the mission paid a visit to the mosque down Swarna chaitya road which is in close proximity to the Buddhist temple and verified the facts for themselves.
The dispute was over a store, temporary used as a prayer centre in the neighbourhood.
The international rights groups and media in no time picked up the erroneous release by the US embassy and pounced on Sri Lanka. The US owes a reply to Sri Lankans today as to how it’s going to compensate for the damage done to the image of Sri Lanka by the statement.
The Sinhalese and Muslims who live in Swarna Chaitya road area have been leading peaceful lives for decades.
A historic Buddhist temple Jayatilakaramaya is located in the area. In addition to the main temple, down the adjoining lane there’s another Viharaya and a Sinhala medium school.
The mosque is located under a Bo tree near the second temple. However, the existence of a mosque under a Bo tree was never an issue for the Buddhists and the Muslims who co-existed in the area.
The second temple and the mosque, however, had come under the jurisdiction of the Urban Development Authority (UDA) as per an order of 1987. The area had been ear-marked for a housing project by the UDA.
In 2010 a three-storied store was built by a person named Hassan Mubarak in between the two temples, about some 20 metres away from the mosque.
The Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), the Divisional Secretariat and Mr. Mubarak himself had admitted the fact that the building was originally constructed for the purpose of storage. Later gradually the place had been used for religious purposes as well. By then the property had been handed over to another party which in turn given it to the mosque trustee.
A circular dated June 21, 2010 issued by the Ministry of Religious Affairs banned the conversion of a store to a place of worship and prayers. It makes it mandatory to get the permission of the Divisional Secretariat or the local council for such a purpose.
The tension was created after the Ministry of Religious Affairs violated its own circular in June, 2013 under the influence of a politician and gave permission to use the store for a Sunday school and a mosque.
The green light to convert the store to a mosque while there’s already a mosque a few metres away and both in between two temples, certainly was a decision taken paying scant regard to the ethnic and religious sensitivities in the area.
The unrest in the area forced the Ministry of Religious Affairs to hold a meeting on July 10, with all parties concerned and it was agreed at this meeting that the use of store as a place of worship should be concluded after Ramazan fast. The devotees were advised to pray at the adjoining mosque afterwards.
The move to violate this agreement by continuing the prayers at the store triggered violence on August 10, resulting the store and property belonging to both communities coming under attack. The mosque, however, remained intact and not a single stone was pelted at it. The photos of the mosque taken after the incidents bear witness to this fact.
It came to light at the meeting held at the Religious Affairs Ministry on August 11 that the number of Muslim families in the area had risen from about 80 in 1987 to 400 in 2013. As such a request for a bigger space could be a rational demand. However, what they could have done was to hold talks with the rest of the villages and the temples and reach an amicable settlement as to how to increase prayer space rather than playing into the hands of opportunistic politicians.
At the meeting the Buddhist monks agreed to chop off the Bo tree so that the mosque trustees could use the space for building extensions to the mosque. Also in an unprecedented gesture of religious amity, the monks also invited the mosque trustees to use the temple Dharmasala any time they wanted extra space for prayers.
It is the wish of all peace loving citizens that this religious harmony is preserved and fostered for generations to come and that we in Sri Lanka set an example of religious amity for the rest of the world.
*This article first appeared in Daily Mirror. Champika Ranawaka MP is the current cabinet Minister of Technology, Research and Atomic Energy in the government of Mahinda Rajapaksa