Friday, October 29, 2010

Church and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka -Santasilan Kadirgamar

Church and Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka

                                                                                                        Silan Kadirgamar

In the context of the above theme it is not possible to perceive the church as one entity – given the denominational and sectarian differences. Secondly when we talk of the church we often confuse the membership with its essentially hierarchical leadership or the church as an establishment – with a substantial stake in the socio-economic-political life of the country. Unfortunately in English we use one word, that for which in Tamil we have two words: “Thirusabai” and “Kovil”. The first is the church as used in this presentation, the latter a place of worship, the temple. For most Christians the church is the temple, a place of worship. The concept of the church as an institution, a group of people or believers does not have much meaning or impact. In spite of all the preaching and declarations for most people the church remains first and foremost a place of worship. One may do well not to ignore this reality. Many Tamil people live in the midst of death, displacement, loss of homes, constant harassment, search and detain operations and as victims of war crimes, from a variety of actors.       

Christians both here and abroad are conspicuous for their utterances and statements on socio-political and economic issues. Hence expectations are high. The high-flown statements and declarations by the church are not matched by actions. The institutional church has demonstrated that by its very structure and membership it does not and apparently cannot intervene in the pressing problems facing society. On the ethnic conflict it is unable to take a specific stand apart from simplistic peace and reconciliation statements, since its membership is divided on political lines. There are prominent lay members of the church, who act as professional advisers to church administrations having held high office in the church, but have taken hard line positions acting as mentors to the most divisive forces in this country.

There are specific reasons why the church does not act where Christians are in a minority. In the third world, in Philippines and South Africa where Christians are in a majority the role played by the church was notable. Even in those countries the voice of the churches in recent years has become muted.

What happened in the CCA at the height of the Sukarno regime in Indonesia is worth noting. The Indonesian Churches’ representatives to CCA refused to allow East Timor to be placed on the agenda. At the 1984 CCA Heiwa (Peace) conference in Okinawa, Japan, Jose Ramos Horta then roving Ambassador for East Timor was present. He was not permitted to speak until several other delegations lobbied strongly in his favour. The senior representative from Indonesia thrust the imperialist argument, a charge that is frequently used in this country against the human rights activists. At the subsequent CCA meeting in 1986 the Indonesian delegation walked out when East Timor was placed on the agenda..

Ideally the best option for a religious minority like the Christians in this country is to get involved with secular justice movements, and/or inter-faith movements and give them all the support possible. That has taken place to a limited extent. .

It must be admitted that the main line churches have hard choices to make. Leaders have to keep the church and its institutions going, and hence resort to some tight rope walking. The NCC of Sri Lanka never made an effort to raise the violations of human rights in the Human Rights Commission in Geneva through the WCC. Neither did the CSI in South India.

There are small groups within the churches, some left oriented and others who are liberals who have stood up for the rights of minorities.

Another position adopted is that the Church cannot speak on political issues. I have referred to Bishop Kulandran’s position on the war in Vietnam elsewhere. Kulandran’s concept of the Christian presence was a conservative and establishment oriented one. It must however be said in fairness to Kulandran, that while his political preferences were well known, he did not make a public show of it unlike his successors who compromised with the extremist forces of Tamil nationalism. Bishop Jebanesan broke this tradition of separation of state and church when he invited and accommodated representatives of the LTTE at the annual sessions of the JDCSI in 2005. These men pleaded that Jebanesan’s term of office be extended. Fortunately sensing the mood among the clergy and the laity wiser counsel prevailed within the LTTE and it distanced itself from the internal affairs of the church.

Conflict – 1948 to 1983

The conflict in this country has lasted 61 years from the year of independence itself. The period can be broadly divided into three phases: (i) 1948 to 1972, (ii) 1972 to 1983 and (iii) 1983 to the present time.

The first and second periods were times when there was adequate space for the churches to intervene. The conflict was very much violence free. There was prevalent the freedom to speak and discuss without being accused of being a fellow traveler of the separatists as happened in the third period. Once the war broke out and the LTTE had established its hegemony in the NE with the claim that they were the sole representatives of the Tamils, the divisions between the Sinhalese and Tamil Christians had become clearly pronounced. The churches failed to cut across the nationalisms in conflict. Church members across the ethnic divide politely swept the issues that were destroying the country under the carpet..

This period coincided with the decline of the once powerful left movement that stood up for the rights of the minorities. The churches and the left were the only two entities in which there was a Sinhalese and Tamils presence. These two provided a platform for debate and discussion. These were the only bridge builders in the country. Today we have some liberals taking a strong stand on peace, human rights and justice to the minorities. But these liberals have not effectively organized themselves into political parties or movements.

The charge has been made that the two oldest left parties the LSSP and CP betrayed the minorities in the period 1970-75, reversing their long and principled stand on the National Question. They played an infamous role in drafting and adopting the 1972 constitution. Leaders of the left with the exception of the JVP were not chauvinists.

Ideally the church is challenged not to be an institution but a movement. In this context one recalls a series of lectures delivered by D.T.Niles at the St. Peter’s Church in Jaffna  (1960s), which he titled “Christianity is not a religion but a secular movement”. I cannot comment about the stance of the majority of Sinhalese clergy and members of churches. But my own impression is that most of them are not chauvinist or majoritarian hegemonists. Every time violence broke out against the Tamils, especially in 1958, 1977, and 1983, there were notable instances of Churches and their members at an institutional level and as individuals adopting a caring attitude to the affected and the refugees. Throughout this war and at times of natural disaster such as cyclones and the Tsunami of 2004 (most affected were Tamil areas) the service oriented role of churches is not denied.

But there appears to be an in-built inclination both among the Sinhalese and Tamil Christians to follow the mainstream in politics on the National Question. This is based on apathy, lack of education and knowledge, failures in communication across the ethnic divide, at times real fear and in quite a few cases an escapist position that politics and politicians are bad and it is best not to get involved.

The Tamil Four Point Programme –1950s and 60s.

The 1950s and 60s reaching into the 70s were the lost decades – a period in which nation building failed. The Christian involvement was noteworthy with very distinguished and highly respected leaders at the helm. But the churches failed to come to terms with concrete issues at stake. In the 1950s and 1960s the Federal Party had won the overwhelming support of the Tamil people in the North and the East (1956 and 1960 elections). The FP had four demands. It was on the basis of these demands that the Bandaranaike-Chelvanayakam Pact and the Dudley –Chelva Pacts were signed. The four points were: 1. A Federal constitution. 2. Sinhalese and Tamil to be the official languages. 3. Citizenship Rights for the Up-Country Tamils. 4. No colonisatiion of Tamil areas.

The left at that time approved demands two and three, rejected one and was sort of non-committal on four. Philip Gunawardene, Minister of Agriculture in the Bandaranaike Government of 1956 rejected policies of colonisation.

I do not think the churches in that period addressed the above four demands point by point. Discussions did take place in the organizations mentioned above. If discussed at the Synod level, there was no follow-up action. The demand for a Federal Constitution in particular was never addressed. It was ignored by state and church..

Church: A Prisoner of Nationalisms in Conflict. Controversies were common in the early decades. But today after the horrible violence, the price paid in loss of lives, displacement and means of livelihood there are people who still ask what do the Tamils want. And this includes Christians. The Church was not able to bridge these differences. Discussions that took place at various levels did not filter down to the laity and members of the clergy.. And when compromise agreements were attempted in 1957, 1965, the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement of 1987, the Chandrika Constitution of 2000 and the Oslo agreement between the Ranil government and the LTTE, the established churches failed in not throwing their weight fully and squarely backing these peace moves. There were a few petitions signed by inter-faith groups – the kind of ones Yohan Devananda never gave up on. But such petitions were ignored by the state and the LTTE.

Where there was a strong will to intervene solidarity was lacking. In 1982 at a meeting of the Christians in the Struggle for Justice held in Kurunegala, Bishop Lakshman related to us the efforts he made to reach President Jayewardene on pressing issues facing the country. JR did not view with favour the leadership that Bishop Lakshman was giving both on the National Question and the 100,000 workers who had gone on strike and were dismissed. He had publicly rebuked Bishop Lakshman asking him to take care of his church and that he will take care of the state.

When Bishop Lakshman was asked how much support he received from members of the church when he was attacked, he said that far from brotherly solidarity most of the letters he received criticised him saying that he very well deserved what he got from the president. At the Tewatte conference Bishop Lakshman pleaded that his brother Bishops and lay members present speak up and express their frank views in the presence of their Tamil brethren. He said, “every time we have consultations of this nature my Sinhalese brethren never speak up, but later they come and whisper to me that we cannot give in to these demands.” In short there was no meaningful dialogue within the church itself.

The same was true on the Tamil side. In 1960 following the WCC Delhi Assembly D.T.Niles brought some outstanding WCC leaders to Jaffna and we had four days of rich interaction with them in the Ashram. One session was exclusively devoted to the developing situation in Jaffna. At the end of the session young as I was I had the audacity to walk up to D.T. and said if only you and Bishop Kulandran could issue a joint statement on the problem we may have achieved a solution. Vigorously shaking his head he waved me off in a gesture characteristic of the man almost saying go away – impossible.

I relate these two episodes to illustrate and underline the view that the Church itself has been and will be deeply divided, a prisoner of nationalisms in conflict. 

Significantly the early1970s was the period when Church Union in this country failed, after decades of negotiations. How could churches that could not overcome this hurdle play a role on the National Question? 1971-72 also marked the failure of the JVP uprising and the slaughter of over 15,000 Sinhalese youth by the state, which went largely undocumented. Neither the institutional church nor the Tamils protested the grave violations of human rights of this period. The Civil Rights Movement in which again Bishop Lakshman played a notable part came into existence and did protest.
Nor did the church effectively protest the adoption of the 1972 constitution, which set in motion the rise of Tamil youth militancy fuelled by the so-called standardization relating to university admissions.

Positive Dimensions in Christian Response

There were notable instances of a “Christian Response to Ethnic Conflict in Lanka” by

some outstanding individual Christians and some Christian movements. With reference to the latter worthy of mention are the SCM, the CWF, Satyodaya led by Fr.Paul Caspersz, Tulana Centre for Research under the direction of the Rev. Aloysius Pieris, (the last two centers were actively promoted by Bishop Leo Nanayakkara, Bishop of Kandy and later Badulla), and Devasaranaramaya with its ever redoubtable Yohan Devananda and the short lived Christians in the Struggle for Justice. Last but not least is of course the EISD initiated by the Rev G.B.Jackson, and the Rev.Lyn de Silva, Bishop Kenneth Fernando and now Marshal Fernando.

In addition there was the Centre for Society and Religion led by the Rev Fr.Tissa Balasuriya. The Rev. Soma Perera played a major role in the Methodist church. Today a powerful voice for justice and reconciliation is the Bishop of Colombo Dulip de Chikera. The Rev. Ebenezer Joseph stands committed to inter-religious dialogue and where possible joint action with peoples of all faiths.

Among the Tamil Roman Catholic Bishops mention must be made of the late Bishop Deogupillai in the 1980s who was a moving force is establishing the Jaffna Citizens’ Committee. He made Bishop’s House Jaffna available for several meetings and a place to meet visiting delegations, taking a very courageous stand on violations of human rights. His successor Bishop Savundranayagam has in recent years spoken critically of both the state and the LTTE, marking a notable change in the Roman Catholic Church. Essentially the stand taken by the three Tamil Catholic Bishops is to remain in solidarity with the people and keeping avenues of dialogue open.

On rare occasions when a Tamil became head of one of the all-Island mainstream Churches, the capacity of the church to get involved became weakened. This was unfortunate. On the one hand the fact that the church rose above narrow ethnic divisions was welcome. But on the other hand an in-built weakness in the church became evident, reflecting what was widely prevalent in the state, the security forces, the business world and other organizations. A Tamil at the helm of affairs became a mere figure head.   

A historical and path-breaking event was the founding of the Movement for Inter-Racial Justice and equality. Left parties, trade union leaders, plantation areas NGOs, social workers, human rights activists, and Christian clergy and laity in and around Colombo inaugurated MIRJE in 1979. Altogether some 70 organisations including several left parties were involved. This was a direct response to escalating ethnic conflict. Here was an attempt to put into practice the much-discussed theme in ecumenical circles: “ In partnership with Peoples of all Faiths and Ideologies.” Fr.Paul Caspersz was the president of the National Movement. Fr.Jayaseelan became the first secretary of the Jaffna Branch. This was the first attempt at organizing a genuine peoples’ movement. By the late 1980s with the inflow of funds from abroad it transformed itself into another NGO. Volunteerism gave way to paid staff and a cumbersome organization. Losing sight of its initial aim and with diminishing foreign funding MIRJE gradually withered away by the late 1990s, but not before internal squabbles and acrimony caused deep divisions.

The tradition of living in critical tension with the church also seems to be diminishing.
When Bishop Dulip de Chikera assumed office as Bishop, a felicitation was held here at the EISD. Looking the people around he acknowledged the role played by many of those present whom he recognized as functioning in the periphery of the church and in critical tension with it. But this is an aging generation. Where are the young people?

Meaningful Engagement

The first period noted above was one of conflict, but it was non-violent, primarily within the confines of parliament and the press with occasional mass struggles adopting Gandhian satyagraha models. It also happened to be the period when intensive discussions took place within the churches. This period was marked by outstanding Christian leaders and include most names mentioned above.      

In 1961 The NCC invited Dr. Daisuke Kitagawa of the WCC to do a study of Sinhalese-Tamil relations. He made a quotable comment that both the Sinhalese and Tamils suffer from a minority complex -the Sinhalese in the context of tens of millions of Tamils across the sea in India and elsewhere in the world. Those behind the present upsurge and stirrings in Tamil Nadu, and the people there would do well to bear this in mind.

There were frequent visit of delegations from the South to Jaffna. In addition there were the annual SCM, NCC, and the Christian Teachers’ Guild conferences at which, especially after 1956 and the violence of 1958 the issue of Sinhala-Tamil relations came in for intense discussion both on the agenda and informally. Of special significance was the Uduvil Conference of 1961 convened by D.T.Niles lasting ten days and abruptly coming to an end with the imposition of a forty-eight hour curfew. The armed forces broke up the single, largest and most effective non-violent mass struggle resisting the imposition of Sinhalese as the only official language. The satyagraha had brought to a stand still civil administration in Jaffna, Vavuniya, Mannar, Trincomalee and Batticaloa for seven weeks. The participants at the Uduvil Conference included practically the whole leadership of the Non R.C. churches in the country. Also present were M.M.Thomas and Rev Dr.Devanandan from South India. Tiruchelvam Senior later Senator from the Federal Party participated in a session that did not go down well with several Sinhalese participants present. His main theme had been discrimination in jobs. Opinion was deeply divided at that time since the Jaffna Tamils still occupied prominent positions in the professions, numerically in higher ration to their population.

Here was an issue that kept the church divided in the first two decades after independence. Sinhalese only was not perceived as an injustice to the Tamils since the Tamils were perceived as privileged. The leadership of the church was primarily in the hands of the English educated elite in the country, and this elite consisted of Sinhalese and Tamils. The Sinhalese Christians in Colombo simply could not understand what the Tamils were disgruntled about. Their perception was coloured by the fact that almost every Tamil they met in their Churches in Colombo, or in their respective places of employment was English educated, privileged or at least in no way poorer in material terms than their Sinhalese counter parts. This perception prevailed when the standardisation debate took place and was imposed on the Tamils in 1971. This attitude was characteristic of the professional and upper middle class. They were unable to see that there were as many poor Tamils as there were among the Sinhalese in ratio to their population. It was this marginalized class that formed the rank and file of the Tamil armed organizations, and comparable to the JVPers that took to arms.  

In the 1950s and 60s and 70s numerous discussions took place in Colombo, Kandy and Jaffna. On one occasion one participant cautioned the Sinhalese present that we (Sinhalese) far too often bend over backwards to please our Tamil brethren from Jaffna, and said we cannot give into this, and that there was the question of justice to the Sinhalese.

!976 and after the discussions among concerned groups became vigorous, in the aftermath of the TULF resolution. Events moved fast culminating in the violence of 1983

The question of Tamil Eelam was debated at the annual conference of the SCM held at St.John’s College, Jaffna even as the TULF was holding its historical sessions. Over 150 students, half from the South were present. This was possibly the last major SCM conference held in Jaffna

Prof.Achie Singam, who had long associated himself with Black struggles in the USA was in Colombo. He visited Jaffna and came back to address the SCM. His chosen title was the “National Question.” The issue had been discussed under “communalism”, a derogatory term for decades, or the Tamil problem. Federalist itself had become an explosive word. The SCM made a major contribution shifting the debate under a more acceptable term. Those who have an anti-Marxist phobia and are not comfortable with its terminology have today altered this to the National Issue or the National Problem. Others prefer the use of the word Ethnic.

Following the resounding victory of the TULF in the polls both in the North and East riots of 1977 took place. For the first time wide scale arson and atrocities took place in Jaffna itself allegedly by the police. This attracted several delegations to Jaffna including the SCM and the CWF.

The world Student Christian Federation sessions were held in Colombo in 1976. Tamil students clamoured for a discussion on the National Question. As a result some prominent intellectuals from Latin America, Asia, and Europe accompanied by selected Tamils and Sinhalese called on the leaders of the TULF. One of the visiting delegates summed up the position of the WSCF saying the Tamil Eelam demand may be set forward for leverage purposes but as a concrete demand was not feasible.  

In 1978 the SCM meeting in Ragama with just five Tamil students present in a group of fifty passed a resolution affirming the right to self-determination of the Tamils of the NE. The lengthy discussions were tri-lingual most of the students proficient in either Sinhalese or Tamil only.

In July 1979 the MIRJE delegation from Colombo that came in an act of solidarity with the people of Jaffna after the first mid-night murders and disappearances in Jaffna included Fr.Paul Caspersz and Yohan Decvananda. This visit led to the founding of the Jaffna Branch, whose president and secretary were Christians.

In 1979 the Rev.Lyn de Silva led a delegation to Jaffna consisting of Lorna Wright, Mrs. Anne Abeyesekera, and George Gnanamuttu. Hosted by the Ashram based Christian Institute for the Study and Religion and Society they had an intensive exposure to a variety of people and the situation in Jaffna. They produced a valuable report, which is of historic importance.

The three consecutive nights of arson in 1981 resulting in the destruction of shops, houses, the Jaffna market, the Eelanadu press and the public library internationalized the issue. The Jaffna Citizens committee was formed on June 2. On June 3rd a high profile delegation consisting of Bishop Lakshman Wickremasinghe, Fr.Paul Caspersz, Fr.Tissa Balasuriya and the Rev.Soma Perera arrived. They met members of the Citizen’s Committee, and many others in Jaffna. A few weeks later MIRJE published a report titled “Jaffna: Days of Terror” written by Fr.Paul Caspersz and Regi Siriwardene.

A YMCA delegation visited Jaffna in 1981, led by the Rev. Celestine Fernando and Mr. Mallory Fernando.  

This period also marked visits by delegations from CCA and WCC, as well as numerous Human Rights groups from abroad including Amnesty International. The visits these  delegations without doubt lifted morale in Jaffna. So much so when I cycled around Jaffna town on my way to the University and back, it was commonplace for people to stop me on the street and ask when Bishop Lakshman or Fr.Paul Caspersz were coming again. 

After 1983 the full-fledged security state came into existence. Even then several teams visited Jaffna, but the political situation had changed radically. The LTTE in proclaiming itself the sole representatives of the Tamil people closed the avenues for dialogue. The Jaffna branch of MIRJE and the original Citizen’s Committee ceased to function with Indian intervention and the IPKF-LTTE war. Civil society in Jaffna ceased to be vocal except as front organizations of the LTTE. All the Tamil militant organisations had been eliminated. The TULF leaders went into exile in India. In fact a new Citizens’ Committee came into existence in practice toeing the LTTE line. The Jaffna Church also succumbed to this one party hegemony. The stubbornness with which the LTTE held on to the separate state demand left little or no space for dialogue. 

A few Christian leaders like Bishop Kenneth Fernando and Yohan Devananda continued to make visits to Jaffna, and made efforts to establish some kind of dialogue.  

Some Concerns

The Christian Presence: 1956 was a traumatic year for the Tamils. With Sinhala Only  over night as it were the consciousness dawned among the Tamils that they were second-class citizens in the country. The older generation felt betrayed. The disillusionment was further enhanced among the Tamil Christians that militant Buddhism coupled with Sinhala Only would deal a double blow. That did come in 1962 with the nationalization of all assisted schools. But one person, pious and ascetic, with a prophetic vision, stood above the fears and anxieties of the times. Addressing a large gathering at the Whitsun festival in the Ashram Sevak Selvaratnam gave a powerful message. He said: “let our schools go, let our hospitals go, let even our churches go – but let the Kingdom of God come.”  It was a message that fell on deaf ears.

Another person who had all along tried to free Tamil Christians from a fear psychosis in that historic decade was D.T.Niles. When the state nationalized schools he tried hard to convince the leaders of the Church establishment to perceive the opportunities that opened up. He saw this as a God given opportunity to free the Christians from their self erected ghettos. He prophesied that there will take place a scattering, a Diaspora of the Christians teachers far and wide in the country through its schools, may be without power but opening an unprecedented opportunity for the Christian presence to be felt in the larger community

Education:The churches island wide did not make a sustained and disciplined effort to educate their own membership on the burning issue of our times. Sermons from the pulpit and study groups that met regularly did not address the fundamental issues involved in the deteriorating situation in the country throughout the last six decades. Noted intellectuals and activists may have made a variety of studies. These were almost always in English and presented to a select group. There was no filter down effect and least of all in the two national languages Sinhalese and Tamil.

Visiting delegations to Jaffna were repeatedly told that the Tamils were not seeking charity. They want justice. The Church did not address the question of justice on the scale it should have done. On those rare occasions when it has been addressed, and especially from the pulpit, it became public knowledge among the Tamils and renewed hope.

Jeffrey Aabayasekere in his critique of the response of Christians wrote, “The apathy and silence of the majority of Sinhala Christians and of Tamil Christians in the South in regard to the ongoing ethnic conflict is a reality to be faced. The failure to educate the rank and file of church members on this issue needs to be acknowledged. With the intensification of the armed conflict … the emergence of extreme nationalist attitudes has led to a polarization of the armed conflict… For example, extreme stances taken by the Church of South India (Jaffna Diocese) and its inability to speak prophetically to the Tamil militants, and the emergence of a movement of Patriotic Christians in the South. It is only a minority of Christians who are active in peacemaking efforts and who seriously question the military solution to this conflict.”

The Evangelicals: Once I happened to attend a revival meeting at a leading Church in Colombo. The speaker a long time evangelical now living abroad held forth for a good 45 minutes on how God had worked wonders in his life. This was normal and expected from evangelicals. But these were times when there was a great deal of violence in the country, people were being killed and the children of the poor from both sides were being sent to the frontlines to be massacred. At close proximity to the church there was an army checkpoint, a clearly visible sight of the larger picture that prevailed in the country. He was totally insensitive to the reality that prevailed outside the confines of that church building. How such people become so sanitised and immune to the terrible violence and the consequent suffering and death of innocent people is a matter that has always intrigued me. What kind of religiosity is this?

Neville Jayaweera having stated that he does not share the central affirmations of those who fall into the categories of ‘evangelical’ or ‘fundamentalist, proceeds to explain the position of these groups. These churches “have rarely ever articulated their position on the ethnic conflict. This has not been for the reason that they do not have a view but that they hold a very strong theological position on the futility of ‘works’ as against ‘faith and prayer’. As the principal modes of intervention appropriate to Christians. … That all conflict is in the outworking of man’s essential sinfulness and that unless that condition is first transcended through the cross of Jesus in ‘faith’ no amount of human or rational effort and secular initiatives, however well intended, will avail. On the other hand, privately they affirm their total support for the values espoused by the Roman catholic and ecumenical churches except that in addition they also hold that those values can never be realized by unredeemed man and that that only the holy spirit can bring them to fulfillment.”

This drift to evangelicalism /fundamentalism/religious bigotry is a phenomenon that has become increasingly evident in many of our church congregations as the established churches lose their membership, especially of young people. This is a global phenomenon, very visible within the Tamil Diaspora. This may be due to a deep sense of insecurity felt by people uprooted from their homelands and culture. More often than not they become apolitical.

The Beam that is in Thine Own Eye

Tamil Nationalism: The crisis in the JDCSI today to the writer at least seems like divine retribution in Old Testament terms for its acts of unrighteousness and the compromises it made legitimizing extreme Tamil nationalism and the ruthless violence that went with it. Today the voices of those who waxed eloquent in defense of the powers that be have become muted, and we have had a notable charlatan and self-proclaimed Tamil nationalist doing a summersault selling falling at the feet of his one time adversaries - the powers that be. I have focused on the church in Jaffna since I know what happened in Jaffna best. If one wants to criticize the church in the South one can find any number of such cases. That must come from Sinhalese Christians. Mine is a position of self-criticism, “cast out first the beam out of thine own eye and then shall thou see clearly to pull out the mote that is in thy brother’s eye.”

Over-sating the case: Once speaking at a sizeable human rights meeting in Tokyo, in 1984, a period when emotions ran high in the aftermath of the holocaust of 1983, I made some very harsh comments on President Jayawardene and his government. A respected Indian judge later walked up to me and said, “the trouble with you Sri Lankan Tamils is that you overstate your case.” Many of us have made mistakes. As president of the Peradeniya SCM I opposed Lakshman Wickremasinghe when in his first year of chaplaincy he wanted to celebrate independence day in the University Chapel. With the intervention of some senior Tamil lecturers we arrived at a compromise that the service will not be celebratory. Bishop Lakshman in 1980 convened at Tewatte – the largest ever conference of Christians in this country to grapple with Sinhalese-Tamil relations and the grievances of the Tamil people with seven Bishops present. In retrospect I think those of us who came from Jaffna wrecked the whole thing as planned by Bishop Lakshman by taking a hard line position advocating the right to self-determination. Bishop Lakshman wanted to arrive a consensus on the major acts of discrimination against the Tamils. 

Truth and Reconciliation

I recall the logo of the Christa Seva Ashram where I was deeply influenced by the leaders of the church in Jaffna, and visiting leaders from the South and worldwide in the 1940s and fifties and sixties, especially Sevak Selvaretnam and D.T, Niles. It read: “Expect great things from God. Attempt great things for God.”
If this war ends and is likely to be so in its present form, the conflict will continue until justice is done. Any attempt to arrive at a lasting solution will necessarily include a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The church being a minority cannot initiate this. The leadership will have to come from the Buddhists strongly backed by the Hindus and Muslims. But the Church can act as a catalyst.  Will the church be equal to such a task?

Meanwhile the speed at which the world is changing is likely to affect the church as presently structured. The so-called charismatic and free churches are coming into existence everywhere. On the other hand the problems facing humanity are stupendous and frighteningly complex. The future lies in Inter-faith and secular movements. It is an explosive and violence ridden world.

It is estimated that there are a hundred insurgent movements in South Asia alone. One shudders to think what it would be like if South Asia enters a period of long drawn out civil unrest and internal wars. Some of us here have lived through over two-thirds of the Twentieth century, referred to as a century of total war - a savage century. This includes the ruthless blood curdling violence in this Island. It has been predicted that this century will be a century of total destruction, and all the signs are there in spite of that little glimmer of hope the Obama victory brought to many of us. What is happening in our part of the world poses a challenge to the church. But going by its history in our time alone I remain a “very doubting believer.”  


Neville Jayaweera, The Role of the Churches in the Ethnic Conflict.. A History of Ethnic Conflict in Sri Lanka: Recollection, Reinterpretation and Reconciliation. Marga Monograph Series on Ethnic Reconciliation, No.17.  Marga Institute 2001

Jeffrey Abayasekera, The Role of the Churches: A Historical Perspective. Ibid No 18


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