COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — With Sri Lanka on the threshold of historic peace talks to find a lasting solution to the country's 20-year-old ethnic conflict, the Catholic Church is doing its best to foster reconciliation.

The chance for peace in the war-ravaged nation increased in February when the Sri Lankan government and Tamil rebels signed a historic truce halting the bloodshed that has claimed nearly 65,000 lives. The two sides are now working together to reach a permanent peace agreement.

The ongoing peace process has generated a “lot of positive changes in the people and most of them are eagerly looking forward to lasting peace,” said Archbishop Oswald Gomis of the Colombo Archdiocese, which contains more than half of the island nation's 1.2 million Catholics, in an interview in late July.

However, some are still apprehensive about the prospect of lasting peace. In response the Church has taken up peacemaking as a mission.

“The peace process cannot succeed unless there is community integration between the ethnically divided [Sinhala and Tamil] people,” said the archbishop, who was installed July 27 after being transferred from the Anuradhapura Diocese.

Based on this vision, the archbishop pointed out, the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has set up “peace desks” and peace committees with the collaboration of other religious communities to foster reconciliation and understanding between the Sinhala majority and the Tamil minority. The move has led to innovative campaigns by the Church to build support for the peace process.

A cycle rally initiated by the peace desk in the northern Mannar Diocese saw 400 minority-Tamil youth pedaling their way to Colombo in a 98-mile bicycle rally in late July. The rallyists received rousing receptions — even at dozens of exclusively Buddhist townships and villages — during their five-day ride to Colombo to bring the message of peace.

“We are happy about the enthusiasm the cycle rally created,” said Father Damian Fernando, director of Caritas Sri Lanka. The Church in Sri Lanka, with the help of the Caritas network, is exploring different methods to muster support for peace, he said.

Serious efforts are being made at the diocesan level to make the Sinhala and Tamil populations sensitive to the suffering and concerns of others. The efforts have resulted in dozens of exchange programs between the Sinhala and Tamil areas.

“It is not Christians alone we take on the exposure programs,” Father Fernando said. “We are acting in collaboration with Buddhist and Hindus.”

With the easing of travel restrictions after the Feb. 23 cease-fire, the Church's effort to build bridges between the ethnically divided communities has become much easier, he added.

History

The Liberation of Tigers of Tamil Elam, known as the Tamil Tigers, had been waging an armed conflict against domination of the Sinhala-speaking Buddhist majority against the Tamil minority since 1983, leaving the Tamil Hindu areas in the north and the east inaccessible to the Sri Lankan army and the Sinhala majority.

The Sinhala population accounts for more than 74% of Sri Lanka's 19.4 million people while the Tamils account for 18% of the population. By religion, Buddhists comprise 69% of the total population, Hindus 15%, Christians 8% and Muslims 7%.

Following the elections last December that brought the current government of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinge into power, the Tamil Tigers declared a unilateral truce on Christmas Eve. The Wickremesinge government responded to the gesture with several goodwill measures, including the lifting of an embargo on the Tamil Tigers-controlled areas, leading to the historic cease-fire agreement signed Feb. 23.

The truce has brought a “fresh lease on life” to the war-weary nation, said Father Anthony Leo, coordinator of Caritas Sri Lanka's program in Trincomalee, which lies 168 miles east of Colombo.

“Now, we find Sinhala people coming here on picnics after years [of absence],” Father Leo said.

‘Community Integration’

With lasting peace now “closer to reality than ever before,” Father Leo said Caritas has already gone beyond the relief and rehabilitation programs for the displaced people in place for years. The challenge before the Church in the new circumstances, he said, is to promote “community integration.”

“There are thousands of families in this country across both sides of the ethnic divide that have lost someone due to the war,” he said. “We need to help them overcome the feeling of vengeance and reconcile them to the reality of one nation with different people.”

With this goal, he said, the dioceses in the south sent Sinhala youth to live with Tamil families in Trincomalee. “When they left, they had a different understanding of the Tamils,” he said.

Such exposure programs are being carried out in a larger scale at schools and among youth, Father Fernando said. Similarly, he said, the Church has organized several gettogethers of war widows from both sides to help them understand and share their sorrows.

Sagari Kakumari, a Sinhala Catholic living in a refugee camp near Trincomalee, said she and her family fled their Tamil-majority village following intense fighting between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army a couple years ago.

Despite being Sinhala, Kakumari said, she is now confident her Tamil neighbors would continue to invite her family for the Hindu festivals and share their meals when she returns to her native village.

Archbishop Gomis said the Church's bid to forge understanding among the ethnically divided communities has already started yielding results.

Said the archbishop: “After the exposure programs, I have heard the people say this fighting has been a folly and unnecessary and how much we have been made to suffer for this.”

Anto Akkara writes from

New Delhi, India.