Brief  Note  




Legal  Framework  Governing   Places  of  Religious  Worship   in  Sri  Lanka  
Centre  for  Policy  Alternatives  (CPA)   30  April  2012          



This   note   is   an   introduction   to   the   legal   framework   governing   places   of   religious   worship   in   Sri   Lanka,   with   specific   focus   on   the   ownership   and   control   of   such   land.   Recent  events  such  as  the  attack  on  the  Jumma  Mosque  of  Dambulla,  the  claim  that   the  Mosque  and  other  buildings  in  the  area  are  situated  in  a  “sacred  area”  and  the   contestation   regarding   the   ownership   of   the   property   and   legality   of   the   construction 1  have   intensified   a   larger   debate   beyond   the   specific   problem   in   Dambulla   to   legal   and   other   challenges   pertaining   to   religious   freedoms,   religious   institutions   and   related   land   rights.   This   debate   needs   to   be   situated   in   a   wider   discussion   on   religious   tolerance   in   Sri   Lanka   and   the   guarantees   provided   in   the   present  Constitution.2     At  the  outset  it  must  be  noted  that  the  legal  and  policy  framework  pertaining  to  land   goes   back   decades   and   is   in   some   instances   archaic,   requiring   reform.3  The   plethora   of  laws,  regulations,  gazettes  and  policies  in  this  area  contributes  to  the  confusion.   This   is   exacerbated   by   practical   problems   such   as   the   loss   or   lack   of   legal   documentation,   fraudulent   documentation,   boundary   disputes,   contestation   of   ownership   and   occupation   by   others,   particularly   in   the   war-­‐affected   areas   that   demand   urgent   legal   and   policy   initiatives   in   the   post-­‐war   context.   This   is   further   compounded   by   the   confusion   over   whether   individual   plots   have   been   classified   as   state   and   private   land,   which   directly   impacts   ownership   and   control   of   the   particular  land.  In  the  instance  of  the  Dambulla  Mosque,  contradictory   reports  have   created   confusion   as   to   the   rightful   owner   of   the   land   due   to   the   contestation   of   ownership  and  the  lack  of  clarity  regarding  which  laws  are  applicable  to  the  specific   case.4  This   has   exacerbated   tensions   among   the   affected   groups   in   the   Dambulla                                                                                                                  
1  Religion  and  Peace,  “Minister  says  mosque  located  outside  sacred  area”,,  26  April  2012,  

(­‐news/?view=talk_town_more&id=46),   last   accessed   on   28   April   2012;   Supun   Dias,   “JHU   says   disputed   mosque   at   Dambulla   not   a   mosque”,   Daily   Mirror,   25   April   2012,   (;   “Premier   says   Dambulla   Mosque   is   illegal;   Muslim   Congress   against   government   decision”,,   23   April   2012,   (,  last  accessed  on  28  April  2012.    
2  The   constitutional   provisions   which   have   a   direct   bearing   on   religious   freedom   in   Sri   Lanka   are  

Article   9,   10   and   14(1)   (e)   of   the   constitution.     Article   9   relates   to   the   foremost   place   of   Buddhism   and   the   State’s   duty,   subject   to   the   provisions   of   Articles   10   and   14   (1)   (e),   to   protect   and   foster   Buddhism.   Article   10,   which   is   an   absolute   right   by   being   exempt   from   the   limitations   on   fundamental  rights  set  out  in  Article  15,  states  that  “every  person  is  entitled  to  freedom  of  thought,   conscience  and  religion,  including  the  freedom  to  have  or  to  adopt  a  religion  or  belief  of  his  choice.”   Article   14   (1)   (e)   provides   that   “Every   citizen   is   entitled   to   the   freedom,   either   by   himself   or   in   association  with  others,  and  either  in  public  or  in  private,  to  manifest  his  religion  or  belief  in  worship,   observance,  practice  or  teaching.”  This  right  is  subject  to  certain  restrictions  that  may  be  prescribed   by  law  under  Article  15  (7),  for  the  purpose  of,   inter  alia,  “securing  recognition  and  respect  for  the   rights  and  freedoms  of  others.”  
3  B.   Fonseka   and   M.   Raheem,   “Land   Issues   in   the   Northern   Province   –   Post-­‐War   Politics,  Policy   and  

Practices”,  Centre  for  Policy  Alternatives  (CPA),  December  2011  
4  In   the   case   of   the   Dambulla   mosque   and   related   land   issues,   the   Mosque   Trustees   claim   the   building  

is   located   on   private   land   whereas   the   Buddhist   clergy   and   their   supporters   claim   it   to   be   “sacred   land”.  The  District  Secretary  of  the  area  is  reported  to  have  said  that  the  particular  plot  of  land  was  



issue  and  has  had  a  ripple  effect  in  other  parts  of  the  country.5  As  to  how  this  issue  is   addressed  can  have  a  far  reaching  impact  on  other  instances  of  disputes  related  to   land   issues   related   to   religious   institutions   and   also   on   relations   between   communities.       In   this   regard,   the   Centre   for   Policy   Alternatives   (CPA)   has   produced   this   short   note   to   outline   specific   laws   that   have   a   relevance   over   lands   and   property   where   religious  buildings  are  situated  and  owned  by  religious  entities.         Relevant  Legislation     There   are   a   number   of   laws   that   deal   in   some   detail   with   the   regulation   of   the   administration   places   of   religious   worship.   Those   relevant   to   the   specific   case   of   Dambulla  include  the  following:     • The  Muslim  Mosques  and  Charitable  Trusts  or  Wakfs  Act  of  1950   • The  Buddhist  Temporalities  Ordinance  of  1921  as  amended   • The  Buddhist  Temporalities  (Amendment)  Act  1981   • The  Trusts  Ordinance       There   are   also   other   laws   applicable   to   Christian   denominational   and   non-­‐ denominational   churches. 6  Furthermore,   some   places   of   religious   worship   are   incorporated   through   Acts   of   Parliament,   which   in   turn   govern   their   administration. 7  However,   these   laws   do   not   place   any   restriction   on   the   proliferation   of   places   of   religious   worship   or   the   locations   where   they   are   to   be                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
acquired   in   1984,   although   no   reasons   are   given   as   to   the   reason   for   acquisition,   whether   steps   were   taken   as   provided   by   legislation   including   compensation   for   affected   parties   and   whether   the   land   was  subsequently  vested  to  another  party  (Wasantha  Ramanayake,  “Dambulla  mosque  dispute  now   in   President’s   court”,   The   Sunday   Times,   29   April   2012,  )  
5  As  evidenced  by  the  hartal  in  parts  of  Ampara  and  Batticaloa  on  26  April  2012.  

6  Calvary   Church   of   Sri   Lanka   (Incorporation)   Act   No   2   of   1999;   The   Church   Of   The   Gospel   Ministries  

In   Sri   Lanka   (Incorporation)   Act   No   17   of   1994;     Society   Of   The   Apostolic   Church   Of   Sri   Lanka   (Incorporation)  Act  No  6  of  1991;  Church  of  the  Foursquare  Gospel  in  Sri  Lanka  (Incorporation)  Act   No  37  of  1986;  Christian  Assembly  of  Sri  Lanka  (Incorporation)  Act  no  20  of  1984;  Fellowship  of  Free   Churches  of  Sri  Lanka  (Incorporation)  Law  Act  No  47  of  1975;    Church  of  Ceylon  Act  No  6  of  1972;   Church  of  Ceylon  (Incorporation)  Act  No  43  of  1998;  Ceylon  Pentecostal  Mission  Act  No  21  of  1970;   Sri   Lanka   Baptist   Sangamaya   Ordinance   No   54   of   1944;   Methodist   Trust   Association   of   Ceylon   Ordinance   No   54   of   1935;   Dutch   reformed   church   ordinance   No   9   of   1926;   Church   of   England   ordinance  No  6  of  1885;      
7     New   St.   Andrew's   Church   Ordinance   No   16   of   1916;   Non-­‐Episcopalian   Churches   Ordinance   No   5   of  

1864;  Episcopal  churches  ordinance  No  12  of  1846;  Presbyterian  Church  (Kandy)  Ordinance  No  13  of   1845;  Kandy  Church  Ordinance  No  11  of  1842;    



established.   Instead,   they   merely   govern   the   administration   of   such   places   of   worship  (i.e  –  property  rights,  leadership  structure,  regulation  of  monies  etc).       In   addition,   there   are   other   laws   that   are   relevant   to   the   protection   and   management   of   cultural   properties,   which   need   to   be   considered   when   examining   the  legal  framework.  These  include:       • The  Central  Cultural  Fund  Act  of  1980     • Antiquities  Ordinance  of  1940  as  amended     • Cultural  Property  Act  of  1988   • Tourist  Board  Act  of  1968     • National  Environment  Act  of  1980       Although  there  are  several  laws  as  provided  above,  these  are  mainly  for  the  purpose   of   protecting,   maintaining   and   governing   religious   worship   areas   and   property   owned  by  religious  and  other  such  entities.         Relevant  Legislation  for  Zoning  Purposes       In   the   examination   of   laws   governing   places   of   religious   worship   and   property   owned   by   religious   entities,   attention   also   needs   to   be   focused   on   laws   related   to   zoning8.   There   are   no   specific   laws   in   this   regard   for   religious   property   but   the   general  laws  related  to  zoning  are  applicable.  The  relevant  laws  that  apply  are:       • The  laws  governing  local  authorities  include  -­‐The  Urban  Councils  Ordinance   of   1939   (as   amended),   The   Municipal   Council   Ordinance   of   1947   and   the   Pradeshiya  Sabha  Act  of  1987       • The  Town  and  Country  Planning  Ordinance  of  1946  as  amended     • The  Urban  Development  Act  of  1978       The   Anuradhapura   Preservation   Board   Actis   also   noteworthy   as   it   gives   almost   plenary   powers   over   local   administration   over   Anuradhapura   city   to   the   Anuradhapura  Preservation  Board.  A  number  of  activities  are  prohibited  within  the   area.   CPA   has   not   come   across   any   similar   legislation   for   the   specific   case   of   Dambulla.  The  zoning  laws  relevant  to  Dambulla  are  as  listed  below.           Local  Authority  Laws       The   different   laws   applicable   to   local   authorities   provide   for   the   regulation   of   construction  and  expansion  in  the  specific  areas.  The  Urban  Councils  Ordinance  of                                                                                                                  
8  Zoning  

include   land   use   planning   issued   by   local   authorities   and   applies   to   how   the   land   is   developed  including  construction  and  removal  of  buildings.    



1939   (as   amended)   for   instance   regulates   the   construction   of   buildings   along   thoroughfares   (roads   and   streets).9  The   Municipal   Council   Ordinance   of   1947   and   the   Pradeshiya   Sabha   Act   of   1987   respectively   also   have   similar   provisions.   These   provisions   apply   equally   to   a   house   as   they   would   to   a   religious   building,   and   typically  cover  matters  such  as  buildings  permits.         The  Town  and  Country  Planning  Ordinance     The   Town   and   Country   Planning   Ordinance   of   1946   (as   amended)is   described   in   its   long   title   as   inter   alia   “an   ordinance   to   authorize   the   formulation   and   implementation   of   a   national   physical   planning   policy;   the   making   and   implementation   of   a   national   physical   plan   with   the   object   of   promoting   and   regulating   integrated   planning   of   economic,   social,   physical   and   environmental   aspects   of   land   in   Sri   Lanka.”   The   Town   and   Country   Planning   Ordinance   is   only   applicable  for  private  lands.       The   Ordinance   empowers   the   Minister   concerned   to   declare   and   gazette   lands   as   “urban  development   areas”   under  Section  6  (2)(b),   “trunk   road   development   areas”     under  Section  7(1)  and  “regional  development  areas”  under  Section  8  (1)  which  in   turn   triggers   the   planning   process   leading   to   the   formulation   of   the   National   Physical   Plan   for   such   areas.   Section   47   lays   down   the   rule   that   once   an   area   is   gazetted,   no   construction,   demolition,   alteration   or   repairs   can   be   done   to   any   structure  in  that  area.  Further,  the  Minister  is  entitled  to  make  “interim  orders”  in   respect   of   the   land   within   a   gazetted   area.10  Thus,   several   restrictions   apply   in   the   use  of  the  land  once  a  Minister  declares  an  area  a  development  area  as  provided  in   the   Ordinance.   Further,   lands   may   even   be   acquired   from   private   owners   by   the   State  if  required  by  the  Plan.11     In   the   recent   past,   there   has   been   a   practice   of   gazetting   areas   of   religious   significance  under  section  6(2)(b)  of  the  Ordinance  as  “urban  development  areas”,   but   referring   to   them   as   “sacred   areas”.   This   practice   causes   significant   confusion   because  while  an  area  is  referred  to  as  a  “sacred  area”,  in  terms  of  the  law  it  remains   an  “urban  development  area”.12       In  2011,  The  Town  and  Country  Planning  (Amendment)  Bill  was  introduced  by  the   Government   which   attempted   to   declare   private property as “sacred areas”,                                                                                                                
9  Sections  72  –  89  

10  Section  46     11  Section  58.  Acquisition  of  private  lands  will  be  done  in  accordance  with  the  Land  Acquisition  Act     12  For   example-­‐   Gazette   No   1614/6   of   August   2009,   No   1631/35   of   December   2009,No   1644/34   of  

March  2010  and  No  1752/1  of  April  2012.    



“conservation areas”, “architectural areas” and so on with no clear terminology explaining what the implications of these classifications meant. CPA challenged the Bill on the grounds that it was not first submitted to the Provincial Councils for its approval as the subject fell within the Provincial Council List13 and was ultimately withdrawn. CPA was also concerned that the vague terminology used in the Bill could provide broad powers to the Minister to demarcate private property as a specific area with no regulatory control, and may result in the dispossession of many of their private lands.       The  Urban  Development  Authority  Act     The   Urban   Development   Authority   Act   of   1978   (UDA   Act),   empowers   the   relevant   line   Minister   to   declare   areas   as   “urban   development   areas”.14  Once   an   area   is   so   declared,   the   process   of   formulating   a   development   plan   commences.15  Further,   restrictions   on   the   use   of   land   within   the   gazetted   area,   such   as   the   prohibition   of   any  development  activity  within  that  area  without  a  permit,  also  apply.16     For   the   purposes   of   the   UDA   Act,   “development   activity”   means   “the   parceling   or   sub-­‐division   of   any   land,   the   erection   or   re-­‐erection   of   structures   and   the   construction   of   works   thereon,   the   carrying   out   of   building,   engineering   and   other   operations  on,  over  or  under  such  land  and  any  change  in  the  use  for  which  the  land   or  any  structure  thereof  is  used”.17  The  only  exceptions  to  these  restrictions  are  in   respect   of   dwelling   houses.   Thus,   where   an   area   is   gazetted   as   an   “urban   development   area”,   any   “development   activity”   in   respect   of   a   place   of   religious   worship  is  prohibited  unless  a  permit  is  obtained  prior  to  such  construction.       In  relation  to  Dambulla,  the  area  was  named  as  the  ‘Dambulla  Urban  Development   Authority  Area’  by  a  gazette  dated  24  March  199418  and  expanded  by  gazette  dated   17  November  2005.19  CPA  has  not  come  across  any  legal  documentation  referring  to   the  area  as  a  “sacred  area”.                                                                                                                      
13  SC/SD/3/2011      

14  Section  3     15  Section  8  (A)  –  8  (H)     16  Section  8  (J),  8  (K)   17  Section  29   18  No.  811/17-­‐  1994.03.24   19  No  1419/10-­‐  2005.11.17  




  Conclusion     As   highlighted   in   this   note,   there   are   several   laws   that   need   to   be   examined   when   discussing   the   issue   of   places   of   religious   worship   and   ownership   of   property   pertaining   to   religious   institutions.   In   the   present   context   of   the   Dambulla   case,   it   is   important   to   establish   who   the   legal   owner   of   the   particular   land   and   the   laws   governing   the   particular   area   is.   Clarity   in   this   regard   is   a   key   element   in   the   resolution  of  this  specific  dispute  but  there  also  has  to  be  attention  to  mediating  a   just   settlement   for   all   affected   parties.   This   case   has   attracted   much   attention   also   because   of   its   implications   for   religious   freedom   in   Sri   Lanka   and   minority   rights   protection.  The  involvement  of  politicians,  religious  actors  and  others  demonstrates   the   need   for   urgently   resolving   this   specific   case   but   to   also   address   the  underlining   issue  of  religious  coexistence  and  reconciliation.     While  the  debates  will  continue  on  land  rights  and  minority  protection,  what  is  clear   from   the   brief   examination   of   laws   is   that   there   are   specific   laws   that   control   the   zoning  of  land.  These  need  to  be  adhered  when  developing  land.   It  is  also  clear  that   the   existing   Sri   Lanka   legal   framework   does   not   provide   for   the   declaration   of   ‘sacred  areas’,  although  there  is  regular  practice  of  such  terminology  increasing  the   confusion.  It  is  therefore  extremely  important  that  the  Government  addresses  such   confusion  and  initiate  steps  to  regulate  land  development  and  protect  rights  of  the   people  as  provided  by  existing  laws.        



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