Preparing for Francis, Sri Lanka Church Considers Roadmap for Peace

Pope Francis' visit to the Asian nation comes mere days after the Jan. 8 presidential elections, which are expected to be contentious.

(photo: Wikipedia/United Nations)

NEW YORK — Since Sri Lanka’s civil war ended in May 2009, it is estimated that more than 100,000 people died, most of them in the final months of the war. It’s only now that the wounds have barely begun to heal.

In 2010, a reconciliation commission was established to deal with atrocities committed by government troops in the northern and eastern parts of the island nation. But little has been done so far, reported Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar in northwestern Sri Lanka

There are doubts whether the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa even wishes to deal with the painful past. Following the army’s defeat of the Tamil rebellion, a new Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist ideology has taken hold in Sri Lanka, explained Bishop Joseph.

“Leaving the past behind and wanting to forget is consistent with a certain Buddhist mentality. This, of course, makes it difficult” to bring about national reconciliation, he told international Catholic charity Aid to the Church in Need in a recent interview.

Bishop Joseph contends that reconciliation is a necessary condition for bringing about a lasting peace between the Sinhalese and Tamil. Already, new tensions have arisen.

Around 8% of the population of 21 million Sri Lankans is Christian, the bulk of them Catholic. Approximately 70% are Buddhist, 12% are Hindu, and about 10% are Muslim. Ethnically, the country is less diverse: About 75% are Sinhalese, about 15% Tamil, and about 10% are referred to as Moors, who are mostly Muslim.

The bishop has high hopes for the visit of Pope Francis, who is due to visit Sri Lanka Jan. 12-15. On that score, President Rajapaksa’s decision to schedule the presidential elections to Thursday has upset Church leaders. They petitioned the government to not schedule the vote so close to the papal visit — but to no avail.

Bishop Joseph referred to the Sri Lankan bishops’ December 2013 pastoral letter, “Towards Reconciliation and Rebuilding of our Nation,” as a roadmap for the country. In their letter, the country’s 15 bishops insisted that the reconciliation commission’s call for “the gradual integration of the different communities in the country as a whole, and in the North and East in particular, should be taken seriously.”

In addition to a call for the implementation of a tri-lingual system — Sinhala, Tamil, and English — in schools and universities, the bishops recommend close cooperation among the various ethnic and religious groups of the country, while also expressing a need for courage in dealing with the dark sides of the civil war.

Even though the Catholic Church only represents a minority of the population, it has taken on a key role: it is the only religious denomination that counts members from all the various ethnic groups among its faithful.

In their pastoral letter the bishops, emphasized that “man’s unending dignity stems from the fact that he was created by God” and that “each human being is more important and valuable than all the rest of creation. This dignity, he carries within himself, irrespective of all differences.”

Reinhard Backes is a member of Aid to the Church in Need International.