Americans know Buddhism as a religion of peaceful tolerance, but that is hardly its reputation within Sri Lanka. Some monks take a visible role marching and protesting against any perceived compromise of the Sinhala Buddhist legacy.

So when Ajith Fernando, a local Methodist church preacher, arranged for me to meet two Buddhist monks I did not know what to expect. I had read Buddhists' strongly worded attacks on Christianity. I thought I might encounter such assaults at the source.

We picked up one monk in a temple not far from Ajith's home, and then proceeded into a very poor Muslim neighborhood. Children stared at us as we crept along a road barely wide enough for a single vehicle. At length we came to the temple. Like all temples that I saw in Sri Lanka, it centered on a large statue of Buddha, under the shade of a spreading, sacred bo tree. The air was quiet, the filtered light shady and green. Behind the Buddha shrine were several small buildings for the monks, a preschool, and a shrine to Hindu gods.

A short man wearing a dark burgundy robe came out to meet us. He had the strong features of a Yul Bryner, with deep, piercing eyes. The conversation, conducted through an interpreter, began stiffly. Who was I, and what did I want to know? The telephone rang periodically to interrupt. Gradually, though, the conversation warmed. My host gave me his card, from which I learned that he was Assaji Nayaka Thero, a 2002 Green Peace Award Winner, and National Organizer for the Inter Religious Peace Foundation.

We drank glasses of king coconut milk, a clear, faintly flavored beverage. He brought out a bundle of photographs from a recent peace meeting in Jaffna, where he had organized Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Muslim clergy meeting. He acknowledged that while he attended a peace conference in Jaffna, other monks were campaigning against the peace in Kandy.

When I asked whether pro-peace and anti-peace monks communicated, he said they had a relationship, but that it would be impossible for them to work together. My interpreter, a Methodist minister named Anura Perara, explained that Thero used a pun. The other party of monks were "sons of war" rather than "sons of Buddha."

What did he think of all the talk of "unethical conversions"? Thero said that when the Buddha was alive, there was only one Buddhist. How could Buddhism, which has spread all over the world, be against conversions? he wondered aloud. Furthermore, "If you can convince someone by giving something, we don't want them anyway. They will leave their new religion when someone gives them something more." Thero summed up his thoughts on the controversy by saying, "We always find evidence to condemn others." He thought peace far more important. "It will take 100 years to change minds. That is our responsibility, not that of the government."

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In the end this fierce-looking man offered me a chew of betel leaves and posed for his photograph in front of the Buddha.

In Sri Lanka Christians relate to other religions in at least three ways. One is to emphasize religious rights. The Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka tries to protect beleaguered evangelists by publicizing religious rights violations and gently insisting that the government respond. A second approach—not incompatible with the first—emphasizes sensitivity to other religions, keeping a low profile and avoiding words or tactics that might offend others. A third approach is accommodation, emphasizing commonalities of different religions. Evangelicals rarely follow this way, but other Christians do.

I came away from my meeting with Thero reminded that men and women of peace exist in all circumstances, and that finding them may matter more than your choice of tactics.

Tim Stafford is senior writer for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

Related articles appearing on our web site today include:

The Joy of Suffering in Sri Lanka | How Christians thrive in the land where ethnic and religious strife is always just around the corner.
Being the Leaven | Why only a handful of Sri Lankan Christians wage peace via the difficult political process.
Indigenous and Evangelistic | Isolated from the infusion of foreign missionaries by Sri Lankan laws, the island's church knows that to survive, it must focus on evangelism.

More reports on religious freedom in Sri Lanka are available from the U.S. State Department, Open Doors International, and International Christian Concern.

The Sunday Leader, an English newspaper based in Colombo, Sri Lanka, recently reported on a "new wave of Christianity" in the country (second item) and an increase in attacks on churches.

Earlier Christianity Today articles on Sri Lanka include:

Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka as Churches Look to New PM to Bring Peace | The island nation reels from an ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 64,000 lives since 1983 (Dec. 19, 2001)
The Hard-Won Lessons of Terror and Persecution | Overseas Christians reflect on painful experiences (Sept. 26, 2001)
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Christians and Buddhists Build Bridges for Peace in Sri Lanka | Religious officials secret meeting with Tamil Tigers draws criticism (Mar. 7, 2001)
Sri Lanka to Investigate Attack on Evangelical Church | Buddhist fervor for tradition and anger at Christian evangelism boils over in church assault (Feb. 28, 2001)
Christians Mediate for Peace | Sri Lanka churches try to reconcile Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. (Apr. 10, 2001)
Sri Lanka's Churches Pray for Peace as War Rages Around Jaffna | Country's Protestants to unify in prayer June 16. (June 5, 2000)
In Sri Lanka's No Man's Land, Churches Provide Some Hope for Refugees | Christians mobilize to help nearly a million left homeless by Tamil conflict (Apr. 18, 2000)
Sri Lanka's People Are Not Divided, Just the Politicians, says Archbishop | Churches call for peaceful end to Tamil fighting (Feb. 28, 2000)
Dispatch From Sri Lanka: Bombs Away | How Western military actions affect the work of the church (June 14, 1999)
Sri Lanka: A Light in Buddha's Shadow | "With no end in sight to the war, we persevere in seeking to be faithful to God." (Nov. 16, 1998)
Dalai Lama, Evangelical Leader Talk | The discussion focused on the persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhists (Aug. 10, 1998)
Assemblies of God Church Attacked | There has been a 230 percent increase in anti-Christian incidents on the island nation south of India in the past year (Feb. 9, 1998)