Sri Lanka

Last Updated 11 October 2022

The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka is a country of just over 20 million people occupying an island in the northern Indian Ocean.  Formerly part of the British Empire, “Ceylon” attained independence in 1948, and became a republic in 1972.

According to the 2012 census, the Sinhalese make up 74.9% of the population and are predominantly Buddhist, or belong to the minority Christian community. Tamils comprise approximately 15.3% of the population and are mainly Hindus, with some belonging to Christian churches. Just over 70% of the population are followers of Theravada Buddhism.  There are significant minorities of Hindus (12.6% ), Muslims (9.7%) and Christians (7.4%). The census indicates that most Muslims are Sunni and Christians are mainly Roman Catholic, however there are small numbers of Baha’is, Shia, Sufis, Ahmadis, Jehovah Witnesses, Methodists, and Evangelicals. The Veddas, an indigenous group, practice their traditional belief. There are no records on the numbers of non-religious people and only 0.1% of the population are recorded as “other” in the last

Sri Lanka’s post independence history has been marked by ethnic violence and a 30-year civil war that ended in 2009. Reverberations of the conflict continue to be felt across the political, social and economic spheres and have had an impact on the enjoyment of the right to freedom of religion or belief.2

Constitution and government Education and children’s rights Family, community, society, religious courts and tribunals Freedom of expression advocacy of humanist values
Severe Discrimination
Systemic Discrimination
Mostly Satisfactory

Constitution and government

Political instability

According to the International Crisis Group,3

“The Rajapaksa family’s return to government has put an end to tentative efforts to address the legacy of civil war and brought in [a] more centralised, militarised government, anchored in Sinhala majoritarianism. As Sri Lanka’s longstanding ethno-religious tensions continue to linger, the presence of hardline Sinhala nationalists in power rules out any accommodation of Tamil political claims. Once-fringe ideas of militant Buddhist groups regarding violence and hate speech against Muslims are increasingly being adopted as government policy.”

As a result of economic turmoil, which swiftly evolved into a humanitarian crisis, a popular uprising against the government emerged in April 2022. Citizens mounted protests against the Rajapaksa government. Between April and May, four members of Rajapaksa’s cabinet (including his nephew and three brothers) resigned from their positions.4 In July, hundreds of citizens stormed the Presidential palace. Both President Rajapaksa and his brother, the former Prime Minister, fled the country.5 Ranil Wickremesinghe was selected by his party to serve as the interim President.6

Religion or belief and the law

Four religions are recognized by law: Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism and Christianity. According to Article 10 of the Constitution,7 every person is “entitled to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, including the freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice.” While Article 14(1)(e) gives citizens “the right either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice, and teaching.”

Article 15 outlines the permissible restrictions to the rights enshrined in Article 14(1), namely in the interests of racial or religious harmony, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offense, the economy or in relation to parliamentary privilege.

However, Article 9 of the Constitution also accords Buddhism the “foremost place” and commits the government to protecting it, but does not recognize it as the state In December 2019, the government established the Ministry of Buddha Sasana, Cultural and Religious Affairs’ consolidating all previous independent ministries representing the four main religious groups into one.9 Its stated mission is to “create a qualitative society with [a] better way of living by way of formulating and implementing policies and programs with the participation of all stakeholders based on all-faith teachings with emphasis on Buddhism around religious centers.”10

Protections against discrimination on the basis of race, religion, language, caste, or sex may be found within Article 12. While the Article protects against discrimination on the basis of one’s religion, it does not explicitly provide the same protection on the basis of their beliefs, thereby making it possible to discriminate against the non-religious.

The right to proselytize is not fully protected. In 2003, the Supreme Court ruled that the propagation of a religion other than Buddhism would not be constitutional  as it would “impair the very existence of Buddhism or the Buddha Sasana”;11,SLK_SC,4be3e7042.html this ruling was further supported in 2018, when the Supreme Court held that the right to propagate one’s religion was not protected by the Constitution.12 In his report to the Human Rights Council, UN Special Rapporteur Ahmed Shaheed reported that “hostilities towards Jehovah’s Witnesses, Evangelicals and Muslims appear to be grounded in the perception that religious conversions threaten established hegemonies or “insult” the doctrines and beliefs of the dominant religion in a given area.”13

According to the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka, as non-religious people are not recognized by the law in certain circumstances, such as registering a police compliant or taking oaths, they are requested to specify to which religious group they belong.

Rajapaksa administration and Buddhism

The Rajapaksa administration has sought to draw support from the Buddhist majority. In November 2021, members of the government including the president, cabinet and top military personnel attended a series of large-scale Buddhist religious ceremonies in the sacred city of Anuradhapura.14

Education and children’s rights

Sri Lanka’s education system is divided by ethnicity or language, with the majority of schools being Sinhala-only. Schools of mixed ethnicities and religions are significantly fewer in number. In addition, religious communities are free to run schools and religious education classes. The state exclusively provides funding to religious schools run by the Buddhist community.15 The segregated system has been criticized for further entrenching divisions within society.16

In 2020, the Ministry of Education announced the appointment of Buddhist monks and nuns as teachers in schools, describing it as a “contemporary need” in order to create “a generation which can improve the belief in the identity of the country and its culture”. The Minister of Education stated: “The religious institution headed by the priests can provide a real contribution to create sensitive people who identify their customs and norms and love their culture instead of creating robots from the system of education in the country.”17

Religion is a mandatory subject in both the state and private school curriculum. No child may receive an exemption. However, parents may choose for their children to study Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, or Christianity. In order for the subject to be taught there must be at least 15 students within the school. Students belonging to other religious groups may pursue religious instruction outside the public school system. The curriculum on religion for the Sri Lankan Ordinary Level is provided by the Ministry of Education, and covers the four main religions. It is a compulsory subject for the General Certificate of Education Ordinary Level exams.18

In 2019, Rishvin Ismath, spokesperson for Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka submitted a 293-page report detailing 367 instances of the inclusion of extremist materials in textbooks used in government-run Islamic schools to the relevant authorities and parties, including the Education Sub Committee of the Presidential Task Force for ‘One Country, One Law’.19 The government has reportedly committed to removing all extremist material from its textbooks, but no progress has been reported to date.20

Family, community and society

Ethnic and Religious Tensions

As a result of a terrorist attack targeting several churches and public spaces on Easter Sunday 2019 carried out by individuals linked to ISIS – which is estimated to have killed more than 250 people – discrimination, hostility and reports of violence against Muslim communities has intensified.21

Tensions between the Buddhist majority and the Christian minority—particularly evangelical Christian groups, which are accused of forced conversions—sporadically flare into attacks on churches and individuals by Buddhist extremists. Muslims have also faced harassment: in April 2012, Buddhist monks stormed a mosque in Dambulla and the government complied with their demands to destroy the mosque, ordering that the mosque would be demolished and relocated. In 2020, a Buddhist monk known for his threatening and violent behavior slapped a Christian while members of the police stood by and watched.22;

Anti-Muslim sentiment has grown since the Easter Sunday bombings, aided in part by the election of Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the COVID-19 pandemic, which was used as a tool to harass the Muslim community. On 28 October 2021, President Rajapaksa appointed Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara – a militant Buddhist monk – to head a presidential task force on legal reforms: known as the ‘One Country, One law Task Force’. According to International Crisis Group:23

“Gnanasara is the public face of the country’s leading anti-Muslim campaign group, Bodu Bala Sena (Army of Buddhist Power, or BBS). He is widely accused of inciting inter-communal violence, including two deadly anti-Muslim pogroms in June 2014 and March 2018.[…]

“Observers across the Sri Lankan political spectrum, including some Buddhist nationalists, expressed dismay – at times, outrage – that the president could name someone whose disrespect for the law and hostility to non-Sinhala Buddhist minorities are a matter of public record to head a commission ostensibly designed to prevent “discrimination” and ensure “humanitarian values”. Critics have called the appointment “irrational” and even “incomprehensible”.”

Participating in the Task Force’s consultation, the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka called on the authorities to make a range of reforms, including ensuring the legal recognition of the non-religious, the abolition of personal laws, and the abolition of the segregated school system, among others.24

Family law

Matters related to family law, including divorce, child custody, and inheritance, are adjudicated according to the customary law of the applicable ethnic or religious group. In order to solemnize marriages, religious groups must register with the Ministry of Buddha Sasana and Religious Affairs.

Muslim marriages and divorces, and interfaith marriages involving a Muslim, fall under the Muslim Marriages and Divorce Act 1951.25 The act does not discuss consent of the bride. Amendments made in 2019, raised the minimum age to marry to 18 and restricted polygamy provisions by granting first wives the possibility of divorce.26 Furthermore, the penal code exempts Muslims from prosecution for statutory rape providing the victim is married to the perpetrator and is 12 or older.

Activists have recently begun a vigorous campaign to change the law. Gathering data to prove this however is rather difficult as parents or guardians lie about the age of the women they are giving in marriage and some marriages are not even registered. A government committee appointed in 2009 proposes to change Muslim personal law, but as of June 2017 its chairman, a former supreme-court judge, is struggling to get the Muslim community to embrace

Despite the fact that the Presidential Task Force for ‘One Country, One Law’ submitted a report recommending the abolition of personal laws, the president has promised Muslim politicians that he would not act upon the report.28


After visiting Sri Lanka in August 2019, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed noted: “In Sri Lanka, women’s experiences of ethno-religious hostilities are no less than those experienced by men. Religious minority women risk double victimization at community and personal levels due to the patriarchal structure of the society and in policies.”29

Under the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act 1951, husbands can get quick divorces without having to offer any explanation, however the wife endures a long process that requires her to produce sufficient and valid grounds for divorce including by producing witnesses and attending hearings. Furthermore, these matters are addressed in Qazi courts. In March 2021, the cabinet announced plans to abolish Qazi courts.30 However, it remains unclear whether these changes have been implemented.

The Special Rapporteur also observed that, “[a]fter the Easter bombings, the Government proclaimed under emergency regulations a ban on face covering in public places. This has led to a rise in intolerance towards those who observe religious dress codes, especially Muslim women in public institutions such as hospitals, schools and public transport.”

LGBTI+ rights

In his August 2019 report, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, Ahmed Shaheed, also noted that, “[m]embers of LGBT+ communities also reported that religious teaching was a significant factor in the marginalization of LGBT+ communities and led to deep personal struggles for those who attempted to reconcile their religious identity with their sexuality. Often, the perspectives of LGBT+ persons and women are excluded from interreligious dialogues and processes of reconciliation. Efforts towards reconciliation, refracted through ethnic and religious lenses, without considering gendered impacts, are not inclusive.”31

However, since the publication of his report, there appear to be concerted attempts to address discrimination faced by the LGBTI+ community. In August 2022, a member of parliament presented a private member’s Bill to President Ranil Wickremesignhe, which seeks to recognize the rights of the LGBTI+ community within the Penal Code. In a statement, the President’s Office reportedly stated that the purpose of the bill is to tackle the harassment experienced by members of the LGBTI+ community.32

Also in August 2022, a Kaduwela magistrate issued what has been described as “a historic ruling” ordering protection for a lesbian woman from her abusive parents. A victim of abuse, the woman’s family had sought to prosecute her for her sexual orientation. The victim was subjected to physical and psychological evaluation at the hands of the police. After successfully securing the dismissal of the case against her, the woman sought a protection order after her family continued to harass her.33

Freedom of expression, advocacy of humanist values

Although freedom of expression is guaranteed in the Constitution, a number of laws and regulations restrict this right. These include the Official Secrets Act 1955,34 the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) 1979,35 additional anti terrorism regulations issued in 2006, and laws on defamation and contempt of court.

Journalists throughout Sri Lanka, particularly those who cover human rights, corruption or military issues, encountered considerable levels of intimidation, which has led over the past several years to increased self-censorship. Several media publications including Sirasa Maharaja media have faced attacks from armed gangs.36  Past attacks on journalists and media outlets, such as the murder of Lasantha Wickrematunga in 2009 and the disappearance of Prageeth Eknaligoda in 2010, have not been adequately investigated, leading to a climate of complete impunity.

Restrictions on ‘hurting religious feelings’ act as de facto “blasphemy” law

Articles 290-292 of the Penal Code (Ordinance No. 2 of 1883)37 provide the framework for restricting expressions that hurt religious sentiments.

Under Article 290 anyone who destroys, damages or defiles places of worship or objects held sacred to a class of person “with the intention of thereby insulting the religion of any class of persons or with the knowledge that any class of persons is likely to consider such destruction, damage or defilement as an insult to their religion” is liable to face a two-year prison term. Article 290A further criminalizes any act in a variety of circumstances within or near places of worship that is intended to “wound religious feelings” or may be considered an “insult” to religion.

Moreover, the law goes on to criminalize in very broad terms any act, including speech acts and written words, made with the intention of “wounding the religious feelings of any person” (Article 291A) or “outraging the religious feelings of any class of persons” (291B), respectively.

Police often take strict action against perceived insults to Buddhism. Foreign tourists perceived to be “disrespecting” the religion have regularly fallen foul of the law.

Section 2(1)(h) of the Prevention of Terrorism Act provides that any person, by words either spoken or intended to be read, or by signs or by visible representations, or otherwise causes or intends to cause the commission of acts of violence or religious, racial or communal disharmony or feelings of ill-will or hostility between different communities or racial or religious groups shall be guilty of an offence. The Act has long been criticized for being used to target minorities, critics of the government, journalists and political opponents.38

Article 3(1) of the ICCPR Act 56 of 2007 (ICCPR Act),39 states:

“no person shall propagate war or advocate national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence’ and makes any such crime a non-bailable offence which is punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”

Sri Lanka’s ICCPR Act falls short of international standards guaranteeing the right to freedom of expression. Following a recent country visit, Ahmed Shaheed, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, noted that:

“civil society has observed that certain actors have attempted to misuse the ICCPR Act to restrict freedom of expression and crush dissent. Although inciting to discrimination, hostility and violence is criminalised under the ICCPR Act, many argued that the Act was not applied in a manner that would protect minorities against incitement; rather, it is invoked to protect religions or beliefs against criticism or perceived insult. [The] ICCPR Act has ironically become a repressive tool curtailing freedom of thought or opinion, conscience and religion or belief.”40Paragraph 72, A/HRC43/48 Add.2 , available online:

Together with the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act No. 48 of 1979, the ICCPR Act and articles within the Penal Code form the basis for Sri Lanka’s legal framework to combat hate speech.

Cracking down on dissent

According to Amnesty International,41

“The Sri Lankan authorities have fiercely clamped down on protests and demonized protesters during a period of economic crisis and hardship in the country. The government responded to largely peaceful protests with excessive and unnecessary force and emergency laws giving sweeping powers to the police and the armed forces, in an effort to curb further demonstrations. Since widespread protests began in March 2022, the police and armed forces have routinely misused tear gas and water cannons against largely peaceful protesters. On two occasions, security forces fired live ammunition at protesters, killing at least one person on 19 April.

“Since President Ranil Wickremesinghe came into power on 21 July, over 140 protesters and protest organizers have been arrested, routinely flouting due process, creating [a] chilling effect on the protest movement. President Ranil Wickremesinghe has also publicly labelled protesters as “terrorists” and “fascists”, in a bid to demonize protesters. Additionally, the government has employed the draconian anti-terror law Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA), which in the past has been used to target, and harass minorities, activists, journalists and critical voices, to detain three protesters.”

Highlighted cases

On 8 June 2020, a Buddhist monk and director of the Buddhist Information Centre, filed a complaint against online activist and rationalist Indika Rathnayake42 claiming that he had propagated fictitious ideas about Buddhism and Buddha. According to Rathnayake, the monk based these accusations on Rathnayake’s Facebook posts stating that Buddhism originated from Jainism. Reacting to the complaint filed with the Criminal Investigation Department, Rathnayake filed a complaint himself with the Human Rights Commission of Sri Lanka on 10 June 2020, stating that his fundamental right of freedom of expression had been infringed. Since the initial complaint was filed, Rathnayake has been questioned by the Criminal Investigation Department. 43 The case was dropped after his July 2020 interview.

On 1 April 2019, rationalist and writer Shakthika Sathkumara44 was arrested on the suspicion that he had committed offences under Section 291B of the Penal Code and Article 3(1) of the ICCPR Act (2007) through the online publication of a short story that made references to homosexuality within the Buddhist clergy. Following multiple procedural delays, Sathkumara was granted bail on 5 August 2019, and released 3 days later. On 22 May 2020, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that Sathkumara’s 127-day detention was arbitrary.45 On 9 February 2021, the case against Sathkumara was finally dropped, 22 months after his original arrest.

On 17 October 2019, playwright and filmmaker Malaka Dewapriya was reportedly interrogated for four hours by police from the Organized Crimes Prevention Division after he was accused of distorting Buddhist terminology in a radio series.46

In June 2019, the identity of one of the members of the Council of Ex-Muslims of Sri Lanka, Rishvin Ismath,47 was made public against his will, jeopardizing his personal security. Ismath was summoned by a Parliamentary Commission, in front of which he denounced some Islamic textbooks, printed and distributed by the Government, which contained explicit incitements “to kill the apostates of Islam“. Since that day, Ismath has received multiple death threats.


“Humanists can have gatherings and meetings only for a selected crowd at in-house auditoriums (subject to the permission of the management). Arranging a large public gathering or meeting is not possible as there could be troubles created by Buddhist monks. Particularly, ex-Muslims have no way of gathering in public, whether small or large, their safety and privacy would be at high risk. Ex-Muslim gatherings are always secret.” – Anonymous

“Atheists and non-religious people are not welcomed by the people. The general public thinks that atheists and non-religious people are the worst” and that “they would do any crimes.” – Rishvin Ismath


9, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 29, 31, 38
40 Paragraph 72, A/HRC43/48 Add.2 , available online:

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