by Shanta Premawardhana
In August 2019, I was in Sri Lanka training religious leaders to build Interfaith Peacemaker Teams. In the context of recent religion-based violence that has rocked Sri Lanka since the Easter morning bombings of churches and hotels, this work has become critical and urgent.
The last time I was in Jaffna, Sri Lanka was in 1981 when the Jaffna public library was burned. A solidarity trip I helped organize from the Colombo YMCA considered the library burning an attempt to destroy the historical and cultural records of the Tamil people. The event was a preamble to the 26-year long war that destroyed many lives and communities.
After a ten-year respite, Sri Lanka is once again facing tensions, this time between religious groups. Following the Easter Sunday (April 21st) simultaneous detonations in three churches and three hotels by suicide bombers, killing over 250 people, the already tense situation has become exponentially worse. Some Buddhist monks have instigated mob violence towards Muslims, burning mosques and Muslim businesses, and killing or injuring Muslim persons. Less than a month after the bombings, Sri Lanka’s Trumpesque president suddenly pardoned and released from jail one of the most virulently violent monks, Ven. Galagoda Aththe Gnanasara, some say, in an attempt to shore up his racist base in light of upcoming elections.
Gnanasara and other extremist monks, feeling vindicated that the April 21st attacks were by extremist Muslims, have stepped up their hateful rhetoric. In our recent travels, we noticed that a vicious rumor that Muslim grocery stores and restaurants inject their food with infertility drugs to reduce Sinhala and Tamil populations is taking hold in the countryside. This is nothing but a strategy to get people to boycott Muslim businesses.
Religious and ethnic violence, we believe, can end only through a reimagined engagement of religious persons closest to the ground. OMNIA’s contribution is the launching of Interfaith Peacemaker Teams (IPTs) where clergy and lay religious leaders work collaboratively and effectively with each other at the grassroots. They, unlike anyone else, can change the culture from one that tolerates and affirms extremism to one that affirms and celebrates pluralism. We see this already in Northeastern Nigeria.
Each Village a Peace Village
OMNIA’s National Coordinator, Bishop Kumara Illangasinghe in a public address following the Easter Sunday bombings, declared that the answer to this crisis is to launch Interfaith Peacemaker Teams (IPTs) in each village in Sri Lanka. There are some 25,000 villages in Sri Lanka -- a daunting number. If we were to seriously consider the idea of building IPTs in all those, we need a long-term strategy. That begins with creating a solid infra-structure that makes it possible. This is what OMNIA has begun to do.
A key part of the strategy is to conduct Trainings of Trainers (TOT) and Advanced Trainings. This August, in Kandy, we brought together 15 of our finest leaders for a TOT. These leaders organize themselves into small teams that will conduct Basic Trainings in their villages or towns. We also conducted three Advanced Trainings in Kandy, Jaffna and Batticaloa. The graduates of Advanced trainings will lead the IPTs. At the end of each Advanced training, participants made commitments to building IPTs in their communities. Their energy and commitment suggest that it is not unreasonable to expect 10 new IPTs before the end of the year.
Healing the War Wounds
During our trip to Jaffna, we visited the IPTs in Vavuniya and Kilinochchi. In between these two Northern Province towns is a large wilderness area known as the Vanni. This was the prime area in which the Tamil militant group, LTTE operated during the 26 year-long war. Kilinochchi was their headquarters for many years. From Vavuniya northwards including all of the Jaffna peninsula was entirely controlled by the LTTE for a long period, that one needed a special permit from the government to travel there.
The war ended ten years ago, but the devastation lingers.
In the IPTs we visited, Vavuniya, Kilinochchi, Jaffna and Point Pedro (the northern most point of the island) were war-widows -- women whose husbands were killed in the war. Many are single mothers who find it impossible to care for young children and find an adequate means of livelihood. Others have family members missing since the war, who still hope for their return. And still others carry significant emotional and physical scars from the trauma of war. The primary work of the IPTs therefore revolve around economic development and restitution for war widows and to press the Office of Missing Persons (an agency of the government) to deliver on their promises.
After the Easter Bombing…
The most heartbreaking visit during the entire trip was our visit to Zion Church in Batticaloa, where on Easter Sunday, a suicide bomber detonated a bomb that killed 31 people, including 15 children and destroyed the church building. Children released from Sunday School minutes before and were milling about in the church yard eating Easter breakfast when the bomb detonated. A church leader had stopped the bomber from going into the church sanctuary because of his suspicious behavior, so he detonated the bomb in the church yard.
This is a large church with over 850 at worship. A charismatic church, they have healing services every day of the week, which are attended by many Hindus and Muslims. We met Pastor Roshan Mahesan, his wife, Michelle, daughter, Stephanie and son-in-law, Sanjiv. On that fateful day, Roshan was out of the country, and Sanjiv was out of town. The mother and daughter clearly played a heroic role, together with many other church members. Pastor Roshan is convinced by the stories he has heard and the evidence he has seen from CCTV video that he was the target of the attack. He believes that the extremists did not like the idea that so many Muslims attend and receive healing at the services.
Roshan has no illusions that it was a few violent miscreants who did this. They were an organized group, but he knows that the majority of Muslims in that town had nothing whatsoever to do with it. He has no difficulty relating with Muslims. However, the people in the church, understandably, he says, are wary of Muslims who might come to church. It will take some time, he said, but they will heal.
Up and down the East coast of Sri Lanka, from Trincomalee to Amparai, there are large Muslim communities. Just south of Batticaloa town is Kattankudi, a town that has designed itself to look like a town in Saudi Arabia, complete with Date palm trees decorating the median of its main street. Most women wear full abaya dress (full body covering), although face covering has been made illegal by the government since the Easter bombing. Muslims in the East coast tend to be very conservative.
In a small town about 20 kilometers to the south, Periya Neelavana, we held our Advanced Training for 16 leaders – Hindus, Muslims and Christians. The day before, we met with the local Interfaith Peacemaker Team. There we encountered the severity of the tensions with which people in these parts live. Tamil (Hindu and Christian) participants wanted to have nothing to do with Muslims. They wouldn’t go to any Muslim grocery stores or restaurants believing rumor that that Muslims inject infertility drugs into food items in a conspiracy to reduce the Tamil population.
We talked about this at our Advanced Training. The way to curb the spreading of rumors that destroy community, is to demonstrate that Hindus, Christians and Muslims can work together effectively. This is what IPTs do. They quickly caught on to Bishop Kumara’s vision of having IPTs in every village in the area. In fact, every village should be a peace village, they said.
Muslim Professionals Step Up
We held two meetings with Muslim professionals in Kandy and Colombo. Most agreed that there is a conservative trend in the Muslim community, and some agreed that it is borne on the backs of women. As an example, for several years, Sri Lanka has been debating the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Act (MMDA) which, supported by the ulema (clergy and scholars) seeks to endorse polygamy, remove restrictions on child marriages, and make it easier for men (using the triple talak – meaning that saying “talak” three times allows a man to divorce his wife) and harder for women to divorce.
Countering this conservative swing, many agreed, requires the deconstruction of “received” theologies that have attributes of exclusivity and superiority. They also agreed that the Maulavis (Muslim clergy) would not be able to engage in such a move, let alone lead it, because their livelihoods depend on received theologies. They agreed that it would be Muslim professionals, particularly lawyers who have the competency to interpret Sharia law, who can spearhead such a move. All those who participated agreed to continue the conversation.
How You Can Step Up for Peace
Although the current situation in Sri Lanka is particularly tense, interreligious/interethnic tensions and violence are nothing new. Here are some questions to ponder and discuss with family, friends and neighbors:
1. What interreligious tensions are you facing in your community? Be open to listening to concerns your neighbors are facing of which you may not be aware.
2. What are some lessons you can learn from this description of the situation in Sri Lanka? Are the sometimes blurred lines between religion, race, and politics unique to Sri Lanka, or do you sense it in your community as well?
3. How will you apply those lessons in your neighborhood? Would “Every Village a Peace Village” be an applicable slogan for your neighborhood, region, or country? Would Interfaith Peacemaker Teams be an appropriate vehicle for community based action on justice and peace?
As you think about these and other questions, please let us know your thoughts.