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Church as a peacemaker

Thomas Latschan/shs
January 12, 2015

The Catholic Church has played an important role in the process of reconciliation between Sri Lanka's Sinhalese and Tamil communities. Pope Francis' upcoming visit to the South Asian country could help consolidate it.

Pope Francis salutes as he gives his traditional Christmas "Urbi et Orbi" blessing from the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica on December 25, 2014 at the Vatican (Photo: ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: AFP/Getty Images/A. Pizzoli

During Sri Lanka's presidential campaign, the country's Christian community was wooed by both former President Mahinda Rajapaksa and his successor Maithripala Sirisena. The closer the presidential race got, the more the two candidates wrestled to win the Christian vote.

In November 2014, Rajapaksa's supporters put up huge posters all over the country showing their leader with Pope Francis. Rajapaksa and Sirisena also attended the Catholic Bishops' Conference in early December to show support to the Christians.

But the Catholic assembly had no interest to be associated with either camp. They also warned of the politicization of the Pope's visit, taking place from January 13 to 15.

Mahinda Rajapaksa (R) and Maithripala Sirisena
Both Rajapaksa (right) and his successor Sirisena tried to win over the country's ChristiansImage: picture-alliance/AP//E. Jayawardena

A year ago, the Bishops' Conference had issued a damning testimony to Rajapaksa's policies which he pursued after the end of the decades-long civil war. In December 2013, it called for the "reconciliation and reconstruction of the nation", "fundamental reforms" and a return to the "rule of law."

From 1983 to 2009, Tamil separatists fought for their independent state in the country's northern and eastern parts. The armed conflict ended in the defeat of the rebels, claiming between 80,000 and 100,000 lives.

Representing both sides

Catholic Christians make up six percent of Sri Lanka's 21-million population. They belong to both the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority. The Catholic Church could play an important role during the civil war also due to the fact that it is the only influential institution that has a representation in both communities.

"The Sri Lankan church has made it clear that the Pope is a facilitator of peace," Heidelberg-based political scientist and Sri Lanka expert Radu Carciumaru. "He is coming to meet all Sri Lankans – Sinhalese, Tamils, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims. It is a spiritual event," he added.

Many challenges

But five years after the end of the civil war, the political situation in the island nation remains tense. "There is still deep mistrust in the former war zones, especially in the heavy-militarized northern region. This makes it impossible for people to lead normal lives," said Carciumaru, adding that the previous government did nothing to change the status quo.

"One can even say the Rajapaksa government hindered efforts to investigate the war crimes committed by the army. At the same time, hundreds of former Tamil rebel fighters remain imprisoned."

The Catholic Church has repeatedly called on Sri Lankans to reconcile and come to terms with the country's recent past. Rayappu Joseph, the Bishop of Mannar, is internationally known as an admonisher who slams the blatant human rights violations which reportedly occurred during the final stages of the war. Neither insults nor countless death threats have dissuaded the Tamil from drawing attention to the issue or demanding a UN-led investigation or the alleged crimes.

Sri Lankan Army soldiers stand guard in Jaffna, about 300 kilometers (188 miles) north of Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tuesday, May 16, 2006 (ddp images/AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe)
Around 80,000 to 100,000 people were killed during the decades-long Sri Lankan civil warImage: AP

Local reconciliation

Pope Francis is also expected to repeatedly call for peace, especially as the ethnic conflict between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority is not the only social fault line in the country. "Radical Buddhists instigate unrest and provoke other religious groups, particularly Muslims and evangelical Christians whom they accuse of doing missionary work," said Carciumaru.

It seems Sri Lanka is still far away from finding a common identity. But this is where the role of the Catholic Church becomes so important: "There are many examples of what effective Church-led reconciliation efforts look like, especially at the local level. In addition, the Church strongly supports education and is involved in charity work, both of which help stabilize Sri Lanka's society."

Pope Francis' upcoming visit will also help spotlight these efforts.