Galagodaatte Gnanasara (Getty Images)

Sri Lanka’s most powerful Buddhist nationalist group rallied its hardline base on Sunday (7), saying they must aim to take democratic control of parliament to protect the community, amid heightened sectarian strains after the Easter attacks by Islamist bombers.

The influential chief of the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, addressing hundreds of monks and followers in Kandy, called on Sri Lanka’s 10,000 Buddhist temples to help win votes for candidates from the Sinhala Buddhist majority.

“We the clergies should aim to create a Sinhala government. We will create a parliament that will be accountable for the country, a parliament that will protect Sinhalese,” said Gnanasara.

He also said the politicians should leave the fight against Islamist extremism to the monks.

“We can talk to them face to face in villages and create the Muslim culture as we want without going for extremism. It’s our responsibility because this is a Sinhalese country. We are the historical owners of this country,” he said.

Sri Lanka has had a history of ethnic and religious violence and was torn for decades by a civil war between separatists from the mostly Hindu Tamil minority and the Sinhala Buddhist-dominated government. The war ended in 2009.

In recent years, Buddhist hardliners led by BBS have stoked hostility against Muslims, saying influences from the Middle East made Sri Lanka’s Muslims more conservative and isolated.

Muslims, who make up 10 per cent of a largely Buddhist country, have become fearful of a backlash, especially in recent weeks. There has been increasing anti-Muslim violence in the country, blamed in part on Buddhist groups, in apparent reprisal for the April bombings that killed more than 250 people.

Police lined the streets of the Sri Lankan highland town of Kandy and the army was on standby as the monks held their first big assembly since the attacks. Several worried Muslim traders shut their establishments for fear of violence.

Kandy was rocked by violence last year when mobs vandalized a mosque, homes and businesses.

“The government is not doing enough for our security and safety,” said 42-year-old Mohammed Rilwa, a Muslim businessman in Kandy late on Saturday. He owns the Fancy Point general store that remained closed on Sunday.

“They see all of us the same way … just because we are Muslims and we have Muslim names,” he said, adding that he has lost 75 per cent of his business since the attacks and worries for the safety of his wife and three children.