COLOMBO - Sri Lanka police Monday announced a new unit to investigate religious hate crimes after attacks by Buddhist monks on churches and mosques last year raised concerns about religious freedom.
Police Inspector-General N. K. Illangakoon said the new unit would swiftly investigate any complaint relating to "religious matters" on the majority Buddhist island amid rising tensions over the attacks.
"This unit will cover the entire country and deal with complaints relating to religious matters," Illangakoon told reporters.
The move follows a series of attacks since early last year on mosques, churches and Muslim-owned businesses by nationalist Buddhist groups who accuse religious minorities of undue influence on the island.
Videos shared on YouTube have shown mobs led by Buddhist monks throwing stones and smashing a Christian prayer centre in southern Sri Lanka in January this year while police looked on.
Senior Buddhist monks have also been caught on video threatening violence against their moderate colleagues who advocate religious tolerance.
Moderate Buddhist monks and Christian and Muslim leaders have accused police of failing to prosecute those behind the attacks.
Religious affairs ministry secretary M. K. B. Dissanayake said the new unit was expected, through swift investigations, to ensure that isolated incidents did not escalate out of control.
The country is emerging from nearly four decades of ethnic war which according to UN estimates claimed at least 100,000 lives between 1972 and 2009.
Tamil rebels were fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who are Hindu, on the Sinhalese-majority island.
Seventy percent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Sinhalese Buddhists, while Muslims are the second-largest religious group making up just under 10 percent.
President Mahinda Rajapakse, who is a Buddhist, warned monks in January last year not to incite religious violence.
However police broke up a protest denouncing religious extremism last year, sparking opposition allegations that the government was tacitly supporting the violence.