Allegations By Bolu Bala Sena

Recently a Sri Lankan man in Saudi Arabia was said to have been arrested and possibly facing execution for worshipping a statue of Buddha in his employer’s house. The news led a Buddhist organization in Colombo to lodge a complaint (complaint number CN/158/1205) with the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, but the organization, Bodu Bala Sena, claimed that the bureau did not take any action. The news also resulted in demonstrations outside the Saudi Embassy in Colombo to demand for the man’s release. The demonstrators included not only the man’s family but also a Sri Lankan MP. But was the story true? According to the Sri Lankan Embassy in Saudi Arabia, it was not.

The Sri Lankan Embassy’s Version Of The Arrest

An official from the Sri Lankan Embassy is said to have visited the man, Premanath Pereralage Thungasiri, in jail and ascertained that he had been arrested on some charge other than worshipping an idol. It seems that Premanath Pereralage Thungasiri was a driver (not a domestic worker as had been reported), and that his sponsor (or employer) had nothing to do with the case. According to the official, Premanath Pereralage Thungasiri had visited another Saudi Arabian’s house to resolve a dispute involving a housemaid there, who was his relative. He was arrested during the dispute. He is not facing execution. Instead he is said to have surrendered his passport and other documents and is awaiting deportation.

Rebuttal Of Other Allegations

Bodu Bala Sena had claimed that the practice of Buddhism and other religions, even some forms of Islam, is not tolerated in Saudi Arabia. To this, the official from the Sri Lankan Embassy said that, “So far, no Sri Lankan has been found guilty of practicing his own religion in the Kingdom”, much less been executed for it.

The official also pointed out that Vesak Day, Buddha’s birthday, was observed recently at the Sri Lankan missions in Saudi Arabia, with more than 20,000 expatriate workers attending the functions in Riyadh and Jeddah. Poson, the day that Buddhism was introduced to Sri Lanka, was also observed without incident. He said that Sri Lankan workers in the kingdom, whether Muslim, Buddhist, or Hindu, were leading “happy and contented lives”, and he urged the Sri Lankan community not to allow parties with vested interests to tarnish the image of Saudi Arabia, where some 500,000 Sri Lankans live.

Think About It

Which version of events is correct? Was Bodu Bala Sena too precipitate in its conclusions about the case? Was it too alarmist about conditions for Buddhists in Saudi Arabia? Despite their differing version of events, could the Sri Lankan Embassy and Bodu Bala Sena both be trying to protect Sri Lankan workers in Saudi Arabia, the former by maintaining good relations with the host country, and the latter by insisting on more active protection for the Sri Lankan workers there?

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Buddhist Man In Saudi Arabia Arrested For Worshipping Buddha

Buddhists In Middle East

There is so little news about Buddhists in the Middle East that it is easy to think they do not exist there. They make up only 0.3% of the total population in the Middle East, but that works out to about 900,000 people. Most of them are workers from countries in the Far East with predominantly Buddhist populations, as well as from Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bhutan. Nearly half of the Buddhists in the Middle East (ie, about 400,000 of them) are in Saudi Arabia, where they make up about 1.5% of the population. One of them, a 38-year-old Sri Lankan man working as a domestic help in Saudi Arabia, has been arrested for practicing his Buddhism.

The Case

According to Bodu Bala Sena, Sri Lanka’s Buddhist Ministry, the man, Premanath Pereralage Thungasiri, aged 38 and a father of two, was arrested for worshipping before a picture (some reports say a statue) of Buddha, even though he was doing so at a private residence, his employer’s house. He was charged with practicing black magic because he burned incense during his prayers. The organization has heard that Premanath Peraralage Thungasiri might be executed. It has lodged a complaint at Sri Lanka’s Foreign Employment Bureau, but says that the bureau has not taken any action.

Difficulties Buddhists Face In Saudi Arabia

Sri Lankan MP Ranjan Ramanayake, who joined Buddhist monks and the family of Premanath Pereralage Thungasiri in a demonstration outside the Saudi Embassy in Colombo to demand for his release, also pointed out what some other Buddhists have had to face in Saudi Arabia. It seems than four men were sentenced to death and forced to convert to Islam before being beheaded, whilst some women were forced to adopt Muslim attire and also to convert to Islam.

A strict from of Islam, the Wahabi form, prevails in Saudi Arabia. Bodu Bala Sena blames the Sri Lankan authorities for not warning its people intending to go to Saudi Arabia about how the practice of other religions, and even of other forms of Islam, may not be tolerated there.

Think About It

Should worship according to a non-Islamic religion in a private residence, on assumption that it is done with the house owner’s agreement, be cause for arrest, let alone execution? Is there really a penalty for “black magic” in Saudia Arabia? Can the Sri Lankan authorities do more to prevent incidents of this type by warning prospective emigrants about the religious intolerance in Saudi Arabia?