For the past several days there have been news stories from Sri Lanka about Buddhist monks attempting to tear down a 50-year-old mosque. This morning I read that the government of Sri Lanka plans to relocate the mosque. Muslims are saying they will not relocate.
I've been trying to sort out exactly what is happening, and why it is happening. I'm still not sure I've got the story straight, but here's my best guess:
Although the mosque, in Dambulla, has been where it is for 50 years, recent building expansion seems to have inflamed the more fanatical elements among the local Buddhists, because it is a "sacred site." Dambulla is the site of some very old Buddhist temples and artifacts, according to some tourism information. A Hindu temple in the same area also is being criticized for being where it is. Some news articles also say the local Buddhist monastic sangha owns the property.
According to the BBC, on Friday before last about 2,000 Buddhists, including monks, marched to the mosque and demanded its demolition. The demonstrations put a halt to Friday prayers.
Protests continued last week, although rumors that the mosque actually was demolished by a mob of frenzied monks appear to have been wrong. But this past Friday a fire bomb damaged the mosque, and afterward another estimated 2,000 Buddhists attempted to storm the building. How much damage this group might have done I do not know.
On Sunday the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka said the mosque would be relocated. But now Muslims in Sri Lanka are on strike, which has shut down public services in many areas.
From here, this episode appears to be completely ridiculous. It appears that way to some people in Sri Lanka, also. Tisaranee Gunasekara wrote in Sri Lanka's Sunday Leader, "The mob-like demonstrators and the monks who were leading and inciting them represented the ugliest face of Sinhala supremacism - intolerant of other races and contemptuous of other religions." (This opinion piece is interesting, btw; recommended reading.)
However, if any of you are closer to this situation than I am and can offer another perspective, do speak up.
I've been researching Sri Lanka a bit lately. This week's feature article is on Henry Steel Olcott, a man whose life took many unexpected turns. In the latter part of the 19th century Olcott went to Asia to study the wisdom of the East. He found Buddhism in Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) in a moribund state after centuries of European colonizers and armies of Christian missionaries had done their best to wipe it out.
Olcott joined a monk of Ceylon named Mohottivatte Gunananda who had already begun what might be called a Buddhist resistance movement. Another Buddhist of Ceylon named Anagarika Dharmapala was also instrumental in restoring Buddhism as the dominant religion of the island nation. Dharmapala was a remarkable fellow who played a critical role in introducing Buddhism to the West, and I plan to profile him sometime in the future.
Here's a brief history of Buddhism in Sri Lanka from its introduction in the third century BCE through the Buddhist revival of the 19th century. Learning some of this helped me see where some of this Buddhist fanaticism came from. I'm not condoning it, mind you, but I think I kind of understand it.