By Dimithri Wijesinghe
Religious freedom is the ability provided for every individual – irrespective of the religious community they belong to – to be able to have, hold, change and/or adopt a religious belief of their choice. However, in Sri Lanka, as well as many other parts of the world, a lack of historical understanding of sociopolitical events, incidents, and developments that have shaped the current climate concerning relations between religious communities and a lack of social understanding and respect for the Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB) have resulted in growing mistrust, intolerance, discrimination, and stirred tensions between religious communities and violence against minorities.
Locally, matters are made worse by the State, which has historically adopted a majoritarian agenda, making it that much more important that society looks beyond the State and towards processes of cultural transformation to curb ethnoreligious violence.
Operating on the consideration that ultimately, ethnoreligious coexistence is achieved through a process of dialogue between communities, the Alliance Development Trust (ADT) and MinorMatters – a public movement dedicated to fostering religious harmony and protecting the freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka – recently launched the country’s first virtual museum on religious freedom in Batticaloa.
The museum is designed as an inclusive space for archiving, learning, and critically reflecting on the complex histories and contemporary concerns relating to the freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka.
The project was launched with the objective of giving way to much-needed dialogue which would potentially determine the peaceful terms on which communities manifest their religion or belief and the convincing of both majority and minority communities of the importance and benefit of coexisting within a framework of religious freedom. The regional launch of the museum took place at an event organised in partnership with Local Initiatives for Tomorrow (LIFT) – an NGO based in Batticaloa.
Brunch reached out to Museum of Religious Freedom Project Lead Mike Gabriel, who shared how the initiative came to be and what they hoped to achieve through their work.
A virtual museum
Mike shared that in 2018, the MinorMatters campaign was launched as a national campaign to promote FoRB and foster religious harmony in Sri Lanka. It was launched as a response to the anti-Muslim riots in 2018 where the main perpetrators were youth.
In 2019, their proposed project to build a virtual museum integrated with an e-learning platform to trace the progression of FoRB in Sri Lanka and build religious harmony received the ‘Intercultural Innovation’ Award, which is given in partnership by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations and the BMW Group. The project received fourth place out of 1,200 applicants from over 128 countries.
Mike noted that the aim was to build greater social respect for FoRB and religious harmony through awareness, introspection, and critical reflection on the historical narrative that had shaped relations between religious communities in Sri Lanka.
Working with their Lead Researcher Shamara Wettimuny and together with their own collective experience drawing from the work that ADT has been doing on the topic of religious freedom in Sri Lanka for the past 30 years, documenting religious freedom violations in Sri Lanka, engaging in training, education, advocacy, etc., the team was able to develop the content for the virtual space.
“With Shamara onboard, we looked at a cross section of people because we know that history is often biassed, and history comes with the stains of numerous ideologies. So, we took it to academics, faith leaders, and interreligious cross sections to respond and give their feedback. Some such collaborators sharing their views were experts like Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda, Prof. Harshana Rambukwella, Dr. Janaki Jayawardena, Dr. Nirmal Devasiri, and several others – all of whom vetted it for us and our final product was filtered through this process,” Mike explained.
Addressing how far back the museum takes us and what it shows us, Mike shared: “We have looked at 200 years of history in Sri Lanka in relation to FoRB, and we identify the key moments that have had a significant bearing on the progression of FoRB in the island.”
He explained further, adding: “It is a work in progress, but currently we have developed three clusters. We start in 1815 from the Kandyan Convention and come down all the way to present day Sri Lanka. The first cluster looks at the colonial period and its impact on religion, the other looks at how the war had an impact on religious communities, and thirdly we look at the law and how it has progressed in relation to FoRB. We also have an exhibition where we look at contested sites and synthetic sites in Sri Lanka.”
Mike also added that the museum was curated by Dr. Vindhya Buthpitiya, and the virtual experience was brought to life courtesy of their Art Director Thilini Perera.
Why a museum?
“Having worked on religious freedom, we have understood that there is a gap in religious freedom literacy. Even though we are a multi-religious society, there exists a gap, and we felt that we have to intervene in helping develop this literacy. We believe that when there is literacy amongst people there is likely to be greater social respect for the subject matter, which would then in turn give way for all communities to enjoy FoRB to the fullest,” shared Mike.
Speaking at the launch event, ADT Director Yamini Ravindran shared similar sentiments: “To strengthen the freedom of religion or belief in Sri Lanka, it is imperative that we first improve FoRB literacy among communities with a specific focus on the country’s youth. Increasing awareness and understanding concerning FoRB will go a long way in positively impacting social attitudes toward FoRB.”
Mike noted that the project rationale was such that, if awareness was built among the masses highlighting the positive stories of coexistence between religious communities and creating in the process an easily accessible space to increase critical engagement with these issues while improving one’s knowledge and skills on FoRB, then it was possible that subsequent improvement in FoRB literacy and historical awareness would trickle down into society.
“When we look at our history, we see violence when it comes to religion, but then we dig a little deeper and we see this history of coexistence where communities have supported each other and been there for one another, so it is a complex narrative. When we think of religious freedom right now, yes, there are definitely issues, no doubt about it. Even in the recent past, mass-scale mobilisation against certain minority religions in the country have occured,” he said.
As Sri Lanka marked the 39th anniversary of Black July last week, Mike also spoke of how ethnic tensions from the past still continue to echo to this day: “While back then it was often tensions along ethnic lines, after the war these tensions and conflicts are being fought along religious lines.
“We have seen behaviour that echoed what happened in ’83 – 2014 in Aluthgama, 2017 in Gintota, 2018 in Digana, and in 2019 after the Easter attacks, we have seen the turning to communal violence based on religion. As we reflect on the ’83 riots to ensure that nothing like that ever happens again, we must understand that there have been echoes of it happening in the recent past and we should take that far more seriously.”
More to come
The museum is meant to be more than a space for reflection, also functioning as a platform for greater change. It’s launch was followed by a two-day workshop in Batticaloa on the freedom of religion or belief with the participation of 25 youth leaders belonging to various religious backgrounds in the region.
Subsequent to the workshop in Batticaloa, MinorMatters also conducted a two-day workshop in Galle on 29 and 30 June in partnership with the Southern Province Education Department. Held at the Management Development and Training Institute in Wakwella, the workshop brought together 36 students aged 16-18 from across the district. The sessions which revolved around the freedom of religion or belief and the country’s history in relation to religious freedom were conducted based on the content of the museum.
Mike shared that similar workshops were set to be conducted for schoolchildren and youth in the Matara, Hambantota, and Jaffna districts over the course of the next few weeks. The workshop in Jaffna will be conducted along with a three-day exhibition based on the Museum of Religious Freedom.
MinorMatters also stated that the students and youth who participated in the workshops would be provided with small grants to develop campaigns to promote FoRB in their respective communities.
According to Mike, the workshops are expected to give way to changemakers in our communities, enabling them to be agents of change when it comes to religious freedom, noting that content in the workshops will be catered according to their target age groups.
To learn more about the museum, please visit
Website – museumofreligiousfreedom.lk
Instagram – @morf_lk
Original Article: https://brunch.lk/sri-lankas-first-virtual-museum-on-religious-freedom/