Church in Sri Lanka Takes Peacemaker Role

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka — For nearly two decades, Sri Lanka has been ravaged by a bloody conflict between the country's Buddhist Sinhalese majority and Tamil separatists. The ethnic conflict has killed tens of thousands and forced hundreds of thousands of Tamil civilians to take refuge in India and the West.

A peace process has been in limbo since April, when Tamil rebels walked away from the negotiating table. The process began at Christmas 2001 when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam — controlling Tamil minority areas in northern and eastern parts of the island nation — declared a truce that led to a cease-fire agreement in February 2002.

Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka and secretary-general of the Federation of Asian Bishops Conferences, has been actively involved in the Church's bid to promote peace and unity.

Catholics make up 6.7% of Sri Lanka's population of 19.5 million.

In an exclusive interview at his office in Colombo, Archbishop Gomis briefed Register correspondent Anto Akkara about the Church's attempts to foster peace and unity.

How is the Church trying to intervene to meet this challenge?

Our aim is to ensure that the people are not misled.

All the Christian leaders in Sri Lanka met June 3 and discussed ways to promote fresh programs to support the peace process. There will be a united Christian peace rally Aug. 22 in Colombo and other places.

The Catholic Church has been carrying out special peace-education programs targeting children. We have also been arranging exposure programs for the Tamil and Sinhala people to meet and understand each other. Unless we bring the divided people together, there will be no peace.

The Church has always made it a point to ensure that our [peace] programs include all communities. There is no point in confining our peace campaigns to the Christians alone.

Even if the whole Church agrees, as long as the majority Sinhala Buddhists and Hindu Tamils are not prepared for peace, there can be no peace. So the Church is acting as “matchmaker” to make the divided communities come together.

Do you face opposition in such ventures?

Initially our peace programs had only a nominal non-Christian presence. But now most of the participants of our peace programs are Buddhists in the South and Hindus in the North.

Recently, we held a peace rally at Polonnoruwa. The majority of the 5,000 people who attended were Buddhists, and many monks participated.

We have held several rallies like this besides holding village-level programs to build support for the peace process, especially after the cease-fire began.

What is the focus of the Church's peace initiatives?

We think the Christian message of forgiveness and reconciliation is very crucial for the success of the peace process. In the exposure programs, we take Sinhala people from the South and lodge them with Tamil families in the North and vice versa. Now we find that these families have become so friendly to each other that they forget their differences and prejudices.

Gradually, the number of those opposed to the peaceful solution is steadily declining.

Since the peace process began, more and more Buddhist clergy are actively participating in our peace programs. Many of them are now more open to visit Tamil areas and are encouraging their people to visit the Tamil areas in exposure programs.

What is the stand the Church has taken on the ethnic conflict?

We have always adopted a united stand on the conflict based on human values.

Though the ethnic division runs deep in this country, Christians are the only religious community with members from both ethnic groups. You can hardly find a Tamil Buddhist or a Sinhala Hindu in this country.

We have three Tamil majority dioceses and eight Sinhala majority dioceses. The bishops’ conference, despite differences of opinions, has always spoken in one voice. As much as I love Sinhala people, as I am a Sinhala man, I cannot deny the rights of the Tamils.

We have always stood for a peaceful solution of the conflict, reiterating that “war is no solution.”

With this demand, the bishops have gone to the government and to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam. Recently, all the bishops went to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam headquarters and told them frankly things they should not have done.

We are firm on this: It should be one country only but certainly it must recognize the right of the Tamil minority. So, the Church has always preached “peace with dignity.”

The Tamil rebels have demanded interim administration in Tamil areas under their control as a precondition to resuming the peace talks. But that demand would be outside the constitution. Do you think the peace process is in a deadlock now?

It is not a hopeless situation. A solution to the present imbroglio is very much possible. The government is offering different proposals. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam has not accepted these. Both sides can arrive at a formula soon to resume the negotiations. We are hopeful this stalemate will end soon.

The constitution is not an impregnable rock. It is man-made and if there is consensus, any constitution can be changed. The only thing is that the people have to be educated for this change.

Has the present stalemate doused the optimism of the people?

No, the support for the peace process is quite a bit stronger now. There has been no bloodshed or violence for more than a year. The people have tasted peace after years of suffering. At the moment, the civil society here is committed to peace more than ever before.

At the same time, there are small groups that want to destroy the widespread optimism in the ordinary people. In a conflict situation, there are always warmongers who have their own personal and financial interests. They are vociferous in their opposition to peace because their aim is to fish in troubled waters.

Anto Akkara is