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Pastor arrested for controversial remarks in Sri Lanka

The Criminal Investigation Department arrested Pastor Jerome Fernando on the 1st of December for his remarks that the Buddha had been "looking for Jesus," which caused a backlash in the Buddhist-majority nation.

Pastor Fernando is the minister of the Glorious Church in Katunayake, Sri Lanka. He also organises evangelistic meetings in numerous countries of the world. In addition to sharing the word of Christ during his gatherings in person, his online messages also touch many people.

One of Pastor Fernando’s remarks from May 2023 caused significant backlash. After speaking about the differences between Christianity and other religions in Sri Lanka, many complained that he had insulted Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. Various Buddhist organisations called for Pastor Fernando’s arrest, accusing him of provoking abhorrence among religious groups in breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Act. This law was introduced in 2007 in Sri Lanka. Ahmed Shaheed, a former UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, observed in 2020 that the Sri Lankan ICCPR Act was not fully compatible with Article 19 of the UN covenant as it did not guarantee freedom of expression.

As a result of the backlash on the “controversial” message, Pastor Fernando left the country in May and travelled to the United Kingdom. Even though he released an apology via live video streaming, he was arrested on his return to Sri Lanka on the 1st of December. Prosecutors claim that they have enough proof that the Pastor was “inciting hatred” and insulted Lord Buddha through his messages. 

The representative of Pastor Fernando, Counsel Anura Maddagoda, argued that the message was delivered within his church and did not cause fury or religious hostility in society. Despite this, the judge at Colombo Fort Court decided that under Section 3 of the ICCPR Act, the magistrate has no power to grant bail unless there are exceptional causes.

Neesha Rodrigo, a Buddhist who is married to a Christian, said that Pastor Fernando’s speech “was grounded in love and kindness… emphasized the principle that everyone should be treated equally, with no distinctions. He advocated for harmony and unity, discouraging any form of discrimination or hostility”.

The National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), which comprises over 200 denominations, issued a press release with the following statement: “His arrest underscores concerns regarding the increasing intolerance towards freedom of expression and the continued use of Section 3(1) of the ICCPR Act…to stifle free expression in the country…. We believe that fostering an environment where individuals can express their views without fear of reprisal is crucial for a healthy and robust democracy.”

Even though Sri Lanka has a constitutional government that guarantees religious freedom, there are major ethnic and doctrinal fights between the predominantly Buddhist Sinhalese groups and the Hindu Tamils. These leading religious groups cause issues for churches on a regular basis. 


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