COLOMBO Sri Lanka's main Muslim political party urged the government on Monday, April 30, to protect the rights of religious minorities, saying its decision to tear down a 60-year-old mosque would only salt the wounds of ethnic violence which wasted thousands of lives over decades.
"We will not agree to any compromise of taking land elsewhere," Rauf Hakeem, leader of Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and Justice Minister, told reporters in Colombo, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported.
"We are very, very firm on that."
Sri Lanka has been thrown into tension ten days ago when Buddhist monks protested against the Jumma Mosque of Dambulla, 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 said 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.
Seeking to pacify Buddhist tensions, the Sri Lankan Prime Minister has ordered the disputed mosque moved to a suitable location as soon as possible.
The Sri Lankan official claimed that the mosque removal came after discussion with several Muslim ministers.
But Muslim politicians have denied approving the government's decision to remove the mosque.
Confirming their anger with the government's decision, Muslims across the country observed a black day' last Thursday as All Ceylon Jamiyathul Ulama called for fasting the day in a protest against the government.
Muslims also called for a general strike last Friday as many public services were seen closed.
"It is misleading to say that the mosque was in existence for two years as it has been there for more than 65 years, Asad Sally, chairman of the Islamic Solidarity Front (ISF) and former deputy mayor of Colombo, told Gulf News.
We have all the documents to prove that it is a legally constructed mosque under the Waqf Act.
Therefore the statement by the prime minister claiming that the unauthorized construction of the mosque has been stopped is totally false, he added.
The leading Muslim party urged Sri Lanka's government to protect the rights of the country's religious minorities, including Muslims.
"A strong government must protect the weaker minorities," Hakeem, SLMC leader, said.
The SLMC leader added that extremist forces" were inciting religious tensions in a country emerging from nearly four decades of ethnic strife which has cost an estimated 100,000 lives.
"We appeal to the government to ensure that they do not allow xenophobic forces to hold the country hostage, he added.
The Muslim Congress which contested in 2010 general election under the opposition and won eight out of 225 seats but joined the government during the budget presentation in 2011.
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.