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Sandy Sneddon, WMC Asia Secretary writes:

I have spent the last few days at a National Conference on Ethnicity, Religion and Violence hosted by the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL).  Over 50 participants from NCCSL, member churches and international partners took part in Bible studies, heard presentations and collaborated in discussion groups on topics such as Ethnicity & Violence, Christians in Advocacy & Justice, Peace-making, Building Peace with Justice. The presenters included theologians, clergy, activists and academics, representatives from Buddhist and Muslim communities and a former army officer.

Prof Sumanasiri Liyange drew attention to the increasing inequality in Sri Lanka and the diminishing parity of participation, especially for the poor. He was one of a number of speakers who said the current legal and constitutional arrangements are unsatisfactory for promoting peaceful change.  In a challenging Bible study Dr Vinoth Ramachandra used the story of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4 to show that God often asks questions rather than providing answers and that we cannot move on until take responsibility for past actions and repent while our worship and ministry must centre on victims of violence and oppression.

Others spoke directly to their own experiences of work and ministry in the midst of conflict. Everyone knew families who had lost loved ones or who had themselves been detained and one participant spoke movingly of how two of childhood friends were killed, one in the army, one in fighting for Tamil Tigers (LTTE). We heard reports of Tamil graveyards bulldozed by the military, of lucrative property and businesses being taken over by the army and navy. Some refer to the military presence in the north as an occupation. The local Tamil population has been displaced, rehoused in dwellings with no sewage disposal, forced off their land or had their businesses taken over. Independent state institutions that provided checks and balances have been removed; the press, judiciary and minority faith groups have been attacked. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Ms Navi PIllai, recently expressed concern that Sri Lanka was increasingly heading towards authoritarianism with a dangerous erosion of democracy and rule of law.

The Sinhala/Tamil ethnic divide is a major issue for Sri Lanka and for the church. It underlies the language issue which quickly escalated to civil war, ties to communities’ ethnic and religious identity and is complex and nuanced. All the Tamil speakers identified themselves as such and there was a reluctance for either side to really acknowledge the suffering of the other.

 I felt that for the Sri Lankan church to be an agent of healing, reconciliation and positive change it first had to face up to the need for forgiveness and reconciliation itself. This will be a major task given that this society is still grieving and recovering after three decades of a brutal civil war in which 80,000-100,000 people died and ended as recently as 2009.