COLOMBO - The Sri Lankan government has expelled more than 160 Muslim preachers on allegations of flouting visa regulations and preaching extremist teachings.
"We have ordered them to leave the country by January 31, Controller of Immigration and Emigration Chulananda Perera told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
They have violated immigration laws. A tourist visa is to have a holiday or visit friends and family and not to preach Islam."
The imams, who belong to the Tabligh Jamat group, arrived in Sri Lanka last month one one-month visas to preach about Islam.
They were mostly from Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Maldives and Arab countries.
A Muslim source told the BBC that the Tabligh Jamat, a popular movement in Sri Lanka and the region, sends groups of imams to places of worship to preach Muslims to devote more time to their faith and act more devoutly.
But the Sri Lankan controller said that some residents complained that the imams were not preaching moderate teachings on the Buddhist-dominated island.
"Foreign clerics wishing to preach Islam in Sri Lanka, must first apply for permission through the religious affairs authorities," Perera said.
Sri Lanka has changed its visa application system to introduce an electronic system early this year.
Only the nationals of Maldives and Singapore are issued on-arrival visas as a reciprocation gesture.
But a veteran Sri Lankan politician dismissed as baseless the allegations that the imams were preaching extremist ideologies.
The main purpose of the group was to visit the underprivileged segment of the Muslim population and further propagate the Islamic faith, said politician Alavi Moulana, who is the Governor of the Western Province, reported The Express Tribune.
He said that he had no idea why the visas of the Muslim imams had been cancelled.
A Muslim source told the BBC that claims that the imams were preaching militant ideologies were laughable.
Sri Lankan Muslim leaders are expected to meet government officials later Monday to discuss the expulsion.
Sri Lankan Muslims, known as Moors, are the third largest ethnic group in the country after the Sinhalese, who make up 70 percent of the populace, and Tamils, who account for 12.5 percent.
During the country's long civil war, the Muslim community was often caught between the two warring parties and it has a reputation for moderation.
Muslims live scattered throughout the island from Galle in the south to the Tamil-dominated Jaffna peninsula in the north.
Generally they are involved in commerce, from running local dry goods stores to dominating the wealthy gem business associated with Ratnapura [Jewel City] and much of the capital's import-export business.On the west coast, Muslims are primarily in business and trade, while on the east coast they are agriculturists, fishers and traders.