COLOMBO - Bowing to pressures from Buddhist monks, Sri Lanka's government has ordered the removal of a decades-long mosque.
"Following a discussion with the relevant parties, the Prime Minister has ordered the disputed mosque moved to a suitable location as soon as possible," Sisira Wijesinghe, media secretary to Prime Minister D.M. Jayaratne, told Reuters.
He said the 50-year mosque in the central town of Dambulla will be relocated in another area.
The Sri Lankan official claimed that the mosque removal came after discussion with several Muslim ministers.
Monks say that the mosque had been built illegally in an area sacred to Buddhists.
Last Friday, the monks protested against the mosque, disrupting the weekly Muslim prayers.
They also threatened to demolish the mosque next week if the Muslim worship place was not removed.
Muslims living in the area told Reuters that the mosque has existed since 1962 and regular prayers have been conducted for the past three decades.
Buddhist monks, however, said the government mistakenly had allowed the mosque to be expanded recently, despite a 1982 state regulation declaring the area sacred for Buddhism.
Majority Rule But Muslim politicians have denied approving the government's decision to remove the mosque.
"It is a false statement, A.H.M. Fowzie, a senior Muslim cabinet minister, told Reuters.
There was no discussion on this and we don't agree with the mosque relocation.
Another politician of the governing party, Azath Sally, said even if the mosque were illegal, people opposed to it should not "act like thugs".
"Do Tamils and Muslims not have a right to live in this country now?" he told the BBC News Online.
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.
Analysts say successive governments have been under pressure to give in to the Buddhist majority whenever there is an ethnic clash.
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.