COLOMBO (AFP) - Four of Sri Lanka's most senior hardline Buddhist monks appeared in court on Monday accused of insulting the Koran, in the first such case following a spate of religious hate attacks.
Police accused the monks, from the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), or Buddhist Force, of making disparaging remarks against the Islamic holy book after bursting into a meeting of religious leaders last month.
At the meeting, the monks also intimidated a moderate colleague who was promoting religious tolerance on the Buddhist-majority island, police said.
"The four priests along with two laymen were summoned by court today and granted bail in the sum of 100,000 rupees (S$959) each," police spokesman Ajith Rohana told AFP.
"The magistrate warned them not to indulge in such activities. We will file formal charges when the case is called again next month."
BBS leader Galagodaatte Gnanasara said that he and the three other monks were not guilty of any offence. "We wanted to plead not guilty, but we had no opportunity to speak in court. We are told a hearing will be on June 9th," he told AFP on Monday.
Authorities are attempting to crack down on hate crimes following attacks blamed on monk-led mobs last year and early this year on Muslim-owned shops, a mosque and a Christian prayer centre. Muslim leaders have complained to the government that the BBS was leading a hate campaign, a charge the group denies.
Last week, Muslim legislators, including government ministers, asked President Mahinda Rajapakse to protect the community from "Buddhist extremist elements" blamed for the attacks. Police established a new unit last week to investigate hate crimes in the wake of the violence, which raised concerns about religious freedoms.
Nationalist Buddhist groups, including the BBS, accuse religious minorities of having undue political and economic influence on the island. 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.
Rebels were fighting for a separate homeland for ethnic minority Tamils, who are mainly Hindu, on the ethnic Sinhalese-majority island. Seventy per cent of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Sinhalese Buddhists, while Muslims are the second-largest religious group, making up just under 10 per cent. The others are Hindus and Christians.