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Sandy Sneddon blogs about a visit to Sri Lanka

I recently paid a brief visit to Sri Lanka and met with several people from various partner organisations. This was my first visit there for eight years so it was good to reconnect and see what opportunities there are for more engagement with Church of Scotland’s partners in Sri Lanka.

For many Sri Lanka is a tropical paradise or an exotic holiday destination but reports by the UN and news from our partners show a darker side. The government’s abuse of power and human rights abuses are causing increasing concern. One partner spoke about the many infrastructure projects that have been undertaken by the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa – highways, port facilities, power plants – that have been funded by China. Some labour is rumoured to have been done by Chinese prisoners and the power plant is contracted to use coal from China.

Other developments are seen to benefit the President’s family, e.g., top class hotels. The government has been criticised for not allowing a UN-led enquiry into war crimes committed towards the end of the war against the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Elam (LTTE) and suppression of dissent.

Faraz Shaukataly, an investigative journalist was shot and seriously wounded in Colombo a few days before I arrived although no-one had yet claimed responsibility for the attack or been arrested.

At the beginning of February the Anglican Bishop of Colombo, Rt. Rev. Dhilo Canagasabey, called for the Christian community to take part in a Day of Lament to protest the impeachment of the Chief Justice Shirani Bandaranayake, an act that was also condemned by, among others, the UN and the Bar Human Rights Committee of England & Wales, who claimed the government had acted against the constitution.

The Theological College of Lanka is just outside Kandy.  I attended TCL’s midweek communion service. This was mostly in Sinhala with some parts in English (including the sermon by Rev Dr Caroline Wickins, visiting from Queen’s Foundation, Birmingham) and a summary of the sermon was given in Tamil. Staff and students sat on the floor for the service as is the custom in many churches in Sri Lanka. The following morning I was invited join the faculty meeting where I had the chance to talk about World Mission Council. Of particular interest was our work and institutions in Israel & Ocuupied Palestinian Territories and the HIV Programme. Dr Jerome Sahabandhu, Principal, appreciated our commitment to accompanying partners such as the college. I was taken round the campus and shown some of the facilities that need to be upgraded, including students hostels and staff quarters. The library was built about 10 years ago and has about 29,000 volumes though relatively few are in Tamil or Sinhalese. I also visited the college farm where Ramesh was tending the cattle that supply milk and provide the fuel for the biogas generator that was rehabilitated by Robbie Granozio, a Professional Volunteer who was at the college until recently. An IT volunteer is in the pipeline with a remit to design a new website for the college.

I also spent time with the remarkable Mrs Pearl Stephens, now 75, and some of her colleagues in some of the Kandy-based programmes of Women’s Development Centre (WDC). Established at the Scot’s Kirk in Kandy about 25 years ago with funds from Church of Scotland the organisation now has 95 staff from all faith communities and is active in nine districts in the north and east of Sri Lanka. Much of what WDC does is to protect girls and women and to educate and raise awareness of their rights and issues surrounding gender. WDC runs the only shelter in Sri Lanka that accepts juvenile rape victims who have come pregnant. While at the shelter girls receive vocational and life skills training. Rape victims who are not pregnant attend the local government school. The shelter can accommodate up to 100 and Pearl says the incidence of juvenile rape and incest is increasing, caused by factors like mothers being absent for long periods if they go to work in the Gulf states, misuse of mobile and internet technology, sexualisation of children and the brutalisation of communities during the war against the LTTE when atrocities were committed by both sides.

 

Mrs Chandratilaka Liyanaarachchi is the head of WDC’s Community Development work. This includes their HIV work which is partially funded by our HIV Programme. I visited the monthly clinic for 35 women, mainly sex workers, who are tested for sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The clinic takes place in the local state hospital and WDC are not charged for use of the facilities or services and it was clear that WDC has a good relationship with government agencies. This was partly born of necessity when WDC did not have funds to pay for premises or medical staff. There are also workshops with different community groups and WDC wants to do more to reach young people. The final piece of WDC’s work I saw was the community based rehabilitation work with children with a range of disabilities. A speech therapist has already had a placement here through the Professional Volunteer Programme and a physiotherapist is due in March.

It was good to meet up with with Rev Saman Perera, Moderator of Presbytery of Lanka (PoL), our partner church, and chair of TCL board. He spoke of the challenges facing churches as the government becomes increasingly intolerant of non-Sinhala and non-Buddhist groups. Despite this, Saman has initiated outreach and discipling work in communities on tea plantations and in the hill areas. As well as Christian education this also includes human rights education and sessions on social issues. Saman is gifted, able and is well regarded by other church leaders in Sri Lanka. But with only two congregations and some outstations and the scope of what PoL can do is limited.

Before leaving Sri Lanka I met Rev John Purves and his wife Patricia at St Andrew’s Scots Kirk. John will retire in August after nearly 10 years at St Andrew’s.

Sri Lanka: a small island with an educated population and a good economy. A place where there are increasing concerns about the misuse of power. A place where our partners are working for peace and justice; healing and rebuilding lives; working together.