10.09.07 15:04 Age: 4 yrs

Encouraged by ecumenical Living Letters, Sri Lankan churches expect the international community not to forget their country


Nagamma, an elderly Tamil woman, tells the living letters delegation about her children's death and how her granddaughter Shalini (pictured) lost her sense of hearing because a landmine blast injured the mother during pregnancy.
Photo: Anto Akkara/WCC, high resolution version available.


By Anto Akkara (*)


Free photos available, see below.


The international community will be looking at Sri Lanka this September, as the European Union reportedly intends to bring its case before the UN Human Rights Council, a body which counts Sri Lanka amongst its members. The Council's 6th session takes place one month after the visit of an international ecumenical team that expressed solidarity with local churches and learned about their peace efforts amid a conflict that has over the past 25 years claimed 70,000 lives on both sides of the ethnic divide between the Sinhala and Tamil communities.


"Your visit at this crucial time shows we are not alone. We feel encouraged that people outside Sri Lanka are concerned about the churches and people here," the Rev. Jayasiri Peiris, general secretary of the country's National Christian Council (NCC), told the six-member delegation from the World Council of Churches (WCC).


Sri Lankan ethnic Tamils, most of whom are Hindus, account for 18 percent of the country's 19 million population, and ethnic Sinhala, most of whom are Buddhists, for 70 percent. Christianity and Islam are also present in the country albeit in a minority form.


The bloodshed started in 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched an armed campaign for autonomy of ethnic Tamil areas in the north and east of the country. In February 2002 a ceasefire was achieved, but the fragile peace process soon collapsed as both parties frequently violated the truce. The renewed violence has claimed at least 5,000 lives since November 2005, when incumbent Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse was elected president with the support of Sinhala nationalist groups.


The August 4-14 visit of the WCC team to the troubled Indian Ocean island was the first of a series of "living letters" missions planned in the framework of the 2001-2010 Decade to Overcome Violence. The visit was hosted by the country's NCC, a grouping of eight Protestant churches and five ecumenical organizations.


The WCC delegation included representatives from Indonesia (Peggy Adeline Mekel), Kenya (Eunice Kamaara), South Korea (Suh Bohyug) and the USA (Jennifer Leath) as well as WCC staff members Aruna Gnanadason, from India, and Semegnish Asfaw, from Ethiopia. The host organization was represented by Santha Fernando, one of its staff members.


The delegation traversed the entire restive north and east of the island while meeting with church leaders, social activists, representatives of political parties and civil rights groups, Buddhist leaders and two ministers of the national government. They learned about the human rights situation, the churches' efforts to bring about peace and reconciliation, and the expectations of religious and civil society actors vis-à-vis the international community.


Mannar and Batticaloa


"We are happy that you are here to understand the situation," said the Catholic bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph, welcoming the WCC delegation. Mannar, in the northwest of the country, is a Tamil-majority district, half of which is controlled by the LTTE. There, the WCC delegation listened to victims of the conflict: widows and mothers described their plight after husbands and sons went missing or were killed.


The delegation also met Nicholas Pillai, head of the local government administration. He said non-governmental and international organizations were making a major contribution in helping civilian victims of the conflict. Among the churches' efforts, Bishop Joseph's church has provided a piece of land and contributed to a housing project for 400 internally displaced families.


From Mannar, the WCC delegation proceeded to Batticaloa along the east coast. There, the government forces have flushed out Tamil fighters from their strongholds during the past year, resulting in the displacement of more than 300,000 civilians.


The visit to the Vaharai region, recently taken over by government forces, highlighted the suffering war brings. Even houses built for victims of the December 2004 tsunami, which killed 30,000 people and rendered homeless nearly half a million, have been damaged by army shelling.


In Batticaloa, the delegation met the Inter-religious Association for Peace, made up of Anglican, Methodist and Catholic leaders as well as Hindus and civil rights activists. They are concerned over the international community's silence regarding the country's situation. "How many abductions, killings and disappearances more need to be recorded before action is taken?" they poignantly asked the WCC's delegation.


The Jaffna peninsula


Jaffna peninsula, in the northern fringe of Sri Lanka, is the Tamil heartland. More than 40,000 Sri Lankan forces are deployed to uphold government's control among the almost exclusively Tamil population of half a million.


"Your presence here is a great encouragement in challenging times," said Methodist pastor S. K. Kadirgamar, president of the Jaffna Christian Union (JCU) who welcomed the delegation. The JCU is comprised of Anglicans, the Jaffna diocese of the Church of South India, Methodists and the Salvation Army.


Though life improved during the ceasefire period, a year ago the government shut a highway that connects this region with the rest of the country, citing security reasons. As a result, people's life has hardened as the price of food, which now has to be brought in by ship, has exploded.


In Jaffna, the WCC team met representatives of the People's Council for Peace and Goodwill. In the organization's view the priority given to the security of the armed forces leads to people's needs being overlooked. As a consequence, civilians undergo immense hardship and humiliation.


With government forces securing strategic sections of the coastline to preempt LTTE strikes, thus restricting the fishermen's access to these zones, the prime occupation of the Jaffna peninsula has been severely hit; many people have been displaced and are facing starvation. In addition to that, abductions and killing of civilians by unidentified gunmen are creating panic among the population.


Churches are present in the peninsula accompanying the war victims, the internally displaced people and the communities affected by the 2004 tsunami. The JCU together with the NCC organize peace workshops. Church schools have started to feed children. At the Eriuganiman refugee camp the JCU is providing tuition classes for children and training for unemployed women. The Jaffna diocese of the Church of South India runs two hospitals, a vocational training center for children as well as a widow's rehabilitation center.


Challenges ahead


One of the challenges identified by the ecumenical team is that churches themselves are divided along ethnic lines. As Christianity is the only religion which encompasses both Tamil and Sinhalese members, churches are too often unable to speak with one voice, for instance about concrete ways to solve the conflict. While some of them advocate for a federalist system or a shared power scheme, others don't. At the same time, the presence of both ethnic groups amongst their faithful represents an opportunity for churches to play a reconciling role. And in fact they do cooperate in many actions on the ground.


In a context of a strong Sinhala Buddhist hegemony, improving the relationships between people of different religions is another challenge. The Catholic archbishop of Colombo Oswald Gomis as well as other church leaders emphasized the need to engage in dialogue with moderate Buddhists partners. Anti-conversion legislation submitted to the parliament in 2004 is still under consideration and constitutes a pending threat to non-Buddhist groups.


Human rights are violated by both governmental and separatist forces. Tamil armed groups forcibly recruit children as soldiers, which is a serious concern for the churches as it perpetuates a culture of violence. Women increasingly become victims of rape and harassment, especially in government controlled areas. Amid the growing militarization of the society that results of both parties seeing war as the only possible solution to the conflict, all the churches strongly advocate for a peaceful resolution.


"It was extremely painful and sad to see and feel how violence has devastated your very beautiful country," said Eunice Kamaara, speaking on behalf of the "living letters" team at an NCC gathering in Colombo towards the end of the visit. "But we were struck," she added, "by the enormous work being done by the churches. Although a small minority in a hostile situation, churches are helping people to cope with an otherwise hopeless situation, being in that way a beacon of hope."


The "living letters" are now back in their countries and churches. They have brought home with them the Sri Lankan churches' plea to help bringing the country's situation to the forefront of the international debate. And to call on churches all over the world to pray for a country that was once known as the pearl of the Indian Ocean.



(*) Anto Akkara is a freelance journalist from Bangalore, India. He is currently a correspondent for Ecumenical News International (ENI).



See a photo gallery of the WCC "living letters" visit to Sri Lanka


For background information about the WCC and Sri Lanka see our press release of 31 July 2007


Background information on the "living letters" visits


Website of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka


Ecumenical News International articles on the WCC "living letters" visit to Sri Lanka:


"War-damaged Jaffna church becomes peace centre"


"Churches fail if they can't stop violence, says Sri Lanka bishop"