Sri Lanka’s difficult road to reconciliation

By Reinhard Backes, ACN International

Adapted by Amanda Bridget Griffin, ACN Canada

The wounds have not healed. Only a few years have passed since civil war devastated Sri Lanka ending in May of 2009. Over 100,000 people are estimated to have died, most in the final months of the war. In 2010, a reconciliation commission, “Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission” (LLRC) was called into being to deal with the war crimes that were carried out in the northern and eastern parts of the island with a number of suggestions being compiled.

Very little has happened since, however. Doubts began to surface long ago whether the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa even wished to deal with it. Following the army’s defeat of the “Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam” (LTTE) in 2009, a new Sinhalese-Buddhist nationalist ideology took hold in Sri Lanka. Bishop Joseph Rayappu of Manar in North-Western Sri Lanka views the country’s current situation with deep scepticism. “Leaving the past behind and wanting to forget is consistent with a certain Buddhist mentality. This, of course, makes it difficult to come to an agreement,” he said during a talk with employees of the international Catholic pastoral charity Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).



The Pope’s visit 

Bishop Rayappu believes however, that without a desire for reconciliation, a peaceful solution cannot be reached in the conflict between the Sinhalese and Tamil, a conflict that was only brought to an end in 2009 after military involvement.

New tensions have already risen. The bishop of Manar is placing his hopes in the visit of Pope Francis, who is planning to stay on the island nation in the Indian Ocean from January 12 to 15. President Rajapaksa’s announcement to move the presidential elections forward to January 8,(today) 2015 has been a source of irritation. The Catholic Church has asked that the elections not be held too close to the pope’s scheduled visit.

According to Bishop Rayappu, the pastoral letter “Towards Reconciliation and Rebuilding of our Nation” of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of 8 December 2013, provides orientation for the difficult road to reconciliation. In it, the 15 bishops of Sri Lanka called for fundamental change and a new beginning. “In this sense, the proposals made by the Lessons Learnt Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) on 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 requiring the implementation of a trilingual system – Sinhala, Tamil, and English – in schools and in universities, the bishops recommend such measures as maintaining close cooperation among the various ethnic and religious groups of the country as well as dealing with the dark sides of civil war.


20100616_006A key role for the Church

Around 70 % of the 21 million Sri Lankans are Buddhist, 12 % are Hindu, about 10 % are Muslim and around 8 % Christian, with 6 % of these known to be Catholic. Ethnically, the country is less diverse: 75 % are Sinhalese, approximately 15 % Tamil and about 10 % Moors, the vast majority of which are Tamil-speaking Muslims. Even though the Catholic Church represents only a minority of the population, it has taken on a key role. After all, it is the only religious denomination that has followers from various ethnic groups.

The words of the bishops, who are tireless in their promotion of peace and reconciliation, are being heard. In their pastoral letter they emphasize: “… Man’s unending dignity stems from the fact that he was created by God” and “each human being is more important and valuable than all the rest of creation. This dignity, he carries within himself, irrespective of all differences.”

Aid to the Church in Need has supported the pastoral work of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka for many years. A key element of its work either directly or indirectly revolves around the goal of reconciliation.

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