30 April 2012, Colombo, Sri Lanka: This note is an introduction to the legal framework governing places of religious worship in Sri Lanka, with specific focus on the ownership and control of such land. Recent events such as the attack on the Jumma Mosque of Dambulla, the claim that the Mosque and other buildings in the area are situated in a “sacred area” and the contestation regarding the ownership of the property and legality of the construction have intensified a larger debate beyond the specific problem in Dambulla to legal and other challenges pertaining to religious freedoms, religious institutions and related land rights. This debate needs to be situated in a wider discussion on religious tolerance in Sri Lanka and the guarantees provided in the present Constitution.
At the outset it must be noted that the legal and policy framework pertaining to land goes back decades and is in some instances archaic, requiring reform. The plethora of laws, regulations, gazettes and policies in this area contributes to the confusion. This is exacerbated by practical problems such as the loss or lack of legal documentation, fraudulent documentation, boundary disputes, contestation of ownership and occupation by others, particularly in the war-affected areas that demand urgent legal and policy initiatives in the post-war context. This is further compounded by the confusion over whether individual plots have been classified as state and private land, which directly impacts ownership and control of the particular land. In the instance of the Dambulla Mosque, contradictory reports have created confusion as to the rightful owner of the land due to the contestation of ownership and the lack of clarity regarding which laws are applicable to the specific case. This has exacerbated tensions among the affected groups in the Dambulla issue and has had a ripple effect in other parts of the country. As to how this issue is addressed can have a far reaching impact on other instances of disputes related to land issues related to religious institutions and also on relations between communities.
In this regard, the Centre for Policy Alternatives (CPA) has produced this short note to outline specific laws that have a relevance over lands and property where religious buildings are situated and owned by religious entities.
Download the report as a PDF here.