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 Global Perspective

June 18, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 12

Rukshan Fernando
Rukshan Fernando, former Asian Coordinator of the International Young Christian Students Movement (IYCSM) works with the Caritas Sri Lanka National Office coordinating the National Peace Program.



A generation of Sri Lankans has grown up amidst a civil war that has pitted ethnic groups one against the other. Reconciliation work here means dispelling prejudices and bridging physical separation.


Reconciliation is peace work in Sri Lanka

By Rukshan Fernando

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka -- When I returned home in April 2001 after three years abroad, Sri Lanka was in chaos. In the North and East, battles ranged between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the Sri Lankan military, whilst in the south, ordinary people lived in fear of suicide bombings. Everywhere, checkpoints and closed roads restricted people's movements. People had not much hope for peace.

My experience in the Catholic student movement gave me a strong yearning to work building peace in my country. Thus, I joined Caritas Sri Lanka

During a national consultation in 1999, the church had committed itself to being a "Church for Peace" and launched a national peace initiative through its Socio-Economic Development Center (a.k.a. Caritas Sri Lanka). The scope for such work has increased considerably since the LTTE and government declared a ceasefire on Dec.25, 2001 ending 20 years of civil war.

The church's structure has enabled it to adopt a multilateral approach working at top-level initiatives involving politicians, policymakers and diplomats, middle level initiatives involving academics, intellectuals and social activists, as well as grassroots initiatives.

Government and LTTE negotiators have surmounted difficult roadblocks and made considerable progress since the ceasefire, which is not to say negotiations have been trouble free. As political talks continue, there is widespread realization that only reconciliation between the Sinhalese and Tamil communities will ensure that peace is authentic and sustainable. A generation of Sinhalese and Tamils has been kept apart and harbor prejudices that need to be dispelled. The church has taken many steps in this regard.

Church-organized exchange programs have started people treading on the long path of reconciliation. Small groups from one region of the country live for three to five days in a village in another region. After to cultural activities, recreation and discussions -- often with local community and religious leaders -- people's perceptions change.

"I thought all Tamils are brutal LTTEers who are suicide bombers and militants who kill our soldiers and innocent people, but now I realize that Tamils are loving and kind people like us."

I have heard this remark frequently after people from other parts of the country visited the North and East.

I've heard similar sentiments from Tamil communities who suffered at the hands of the predominantly Sinhalese government forces.

"We thought all Sinhalese are like the army and air force who raped our women, killed and injured our people, forcibly evicted us from our homes and destroyed our property by bombing and shelling. But now we know that they are also kind and want peace as much as we do."

Last year, Tamil youth donated blood to Sinhalese communities in the country's central region. Later, Sinhalese youth reciprocated. In the past, these communities had shed each other's blood, thus donating blood to save lives is a symbolic act.

Much of the above has to do with the "official" church. Meanwhile, the "other" church -- I mean the priests, religious and laity who give Christian witness through their daily contact with ordinary people -- also is working for peace and reconciliation. The "other" church's contribution is crucial with its critical and holistic analyses as well as grassroots level involvement with day-to-day issues affecting people.

The church -- the "official" and the "other" -- is becoming increasingly sensitive to and involved in inter-religious initiatives. Most of Sri Lanka's 20 million people are Buddhists. About 16 percent are Hindus and 8 percent Muslims. Generally speaking almost all Buddhists are Sinhaleses and almost all Hindus are Tamils. There are significant numbers of Christians among both the Sinhalese and Tamils.

The church's reconciliation activities include this multireligious context. Catholics are active in the Inter-Religious Peace Foundation and the Congress of Religions. In predominantly Buddhist areas, Buddhist monks are often at the forefront of activities initiated by the church.

But before I paint to rosy of a picture of the church's work, let me point out that the church and its leaders also have been on a journey of reconciliation. In the most difficult times, the church in the North and East stood by its people and spoke against human rights violations. In the south, many Catholics and others saw this as the church being allied to the LTTE. These internal strains are being healed.

Other problems affect the church's credibility. While it has strongly and consistently called the government and the LTTE to maintain the ceasefire, its voice has been less strong and less consistent in speaking up against the human rights violations of both sides.

The church's alliances with Sri Lanka's elite, rich and powerful have made it a weak critic of other issues, especially issues related to economic justice and development.

I think the "other" church has taken a more balanced stand on these issues, critically analyzing the motives of all parties involved, including external governments and agencies. Many in this "other" church are deeply involved in campaigns against torture and the adverse impact of globalization, misguided development projects and privatization of national assets.

Because my roots and training are in the "other" church but I am a full-time worker in the "official" church, I often feel like I am walking with a foot each on two parallel ropes. But, I feel my dilemma is part of a larger dilemma. The "official" and "other" church need to join hands and work together to reap the benefits of their different charismas and strengths.

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