COLOMBO (AFP) - Sri Lanka's police on Friday broke up a protest by dozens of activists denouncing religious extremism and hate speech for fuelling a wave of attacks against minority Muslims, witnesses said.
Police armed with guns, batons and tear gas dispersed the activists before they could stage a candle-light vigil against the nationalist Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, or Buddhist Force), in a campaign organised through Facebook.
The protest by "Buddhists Questioning Bodu Bala Sena" asked those opposed to the BBS to join the protest which was brought to an end when when police stopped them from gathering outside the BBS headquarters.
"This is your vigil against hatred and bigotry, which sadly is propagated by certain Buddhists monks," the protesters said on Facebook. "Whilst there are many forms of hate inciting groups, hate incited by members of the majority is the most dangerous."
The newly-formed monk-led BBS has denied involvement in recent attacks against Muslims and Christians and say they have been wrongly accused for actions of other Buddhist extremists groups.
The BBS was successful last month in forcing Islamic clerics to withdraw the halal certification of food saying it was an affront to non-Muslims in the country who form the majority.
Earlier this month, a magistrate freed three Buddhists monks and 14 of their followers who had been arrested in connection with the destruction of two Muslim-owned businesses.
Local television footage, some of it posted on YouTube, showed a Buddhist monk bringing down a CCTV camera in front of a cheering mob outside a Muslim-owned store, watched by at least four police constables late last month.
Another monk was seen threatening a news cameraman who was later hospitalised after being assaulted by the monk's followers.
Sri Lanka's main Muslim political party in the ruling coalition has warned of an ongoing hate campaign against minority Muslims.
Muslims constitute about 10 per cent of the country's 20 million population, the second largest minority after the mainly Hindu ethnic Tamils. Seventy per cent of the population are Sinhalese and mostly Buddhists.