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Indispensable Role Of Religious Leaders For Reconciliation

In Memory Of Late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe

| by Father S.J.Emmanuel 

( October 25, 2013, Frankfurt, Sri Lanka Guardian) Thirty years ago on the 23rd of October 1983, Sri Lanka lost one of the ablest Sinhala Christian Leader - Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe,- a loss not only for his church but also for the whole country. I am informed that after  the massacre of 1983 Black July, the bishop was very heart-broken at the tragedy that overtook the people of this country and the unwillingness of the rulers to be ashamed and guilty on behalf of the majority people and their rulers. Now after a prolonged war and destruction, when some attempts are being made for reconciliation among the various ethnic and religious communities of the island, it is right and fitting that we recall to mind the exemplary leadership given by the late Bishop to his people. Though he was bishop only of a diocese and that too only for about two decades, he reached out to all ethnic communities and religions and their leaders with a sincere love for a peaceful country.

1.      Government’s Efforts counterproductive  for Reconciliation?
I feel sorry for the very poor efforts of the present government especially with regard to reconciliation. After coming into power by whipping up extremist feelings of the ethnic and religious communities and prosecuting a war, not so much against the LTTE, but against a whole civilian population, it is challenged to rehabilitate and reconcile what is left behind. Its motivation and methods used in war as well as its triumphalist celebrations of conquest thereafter exhibited beyond doubt its conquest/domineering attitude which made it most unsuitable to respond to the challenges especially of reconciliation. Rehabilitation with foreign funds is done more in erecting victory memorials and building of further military camps with houses for the families of army personel,  and roads for army movements and less for the detained and displaced victims. With regard to reconciliation it was made more and more difficult by the post-war victory attitude to militarise the Tamil regions and a revengeful army administration of Tamil-life. Bulldozing even the war memorials of the ‘conquered-Tamils’ building army camps over them  and preventing parents from mourning for their own children is barbaric and counterproductive to reconciliation. This is what Bishop Lakshman, who daringly apologized to the Tamils for the crimes committed by his people, called it “a shame of the majority”.
I had the occasion to react adversely to some efforts of two Christian politicians in Geneva. Prof. Rajiva Wijesinghe ( a nephew of Bishop Lakshman) with all his good will presented a voluminous book titled “Road to Reconciliation” and Ministers Mahinda Samarasinghe and …..others presented tons of voluminous printed materials in the side-events in Geneva in defence of the efforts of the Government towards rehabilitation and reconciliation. Each of us received almost 6 kilos of printed material brought from Colombo to Geneva. They gave us lot of information about the building of infra-structures and development of communication through good roads, but very little to bring hearts and minds of people closer to unity.I had the occasion to react critically to the efforts of good Christians as ministers, that reconciliation among ethnic and religious groups has to do more with opening of hearts and minds of people, with setting values like truth, justice, neighborly love, compassion etc. than with constructions and developments. This is unfortunately the consequence of government alone taking the responsibility which lies largely  with all the four religions and their leaders

2.      Can a racist-state effect reconciliation?
Mr. Issath Hussein, in articles appearing in the Island  has rightly identified the root cause of our problems as state-racism and how it works by calling the fringe-extremists to help them in their dictatorial family rule. It is mostly the politicians and the state who whip up racist feelings among the masses to come to power and then execute their evil intentions with the help of extreme-racists.  How can we expect such a State, and in our times a state identified as a family-dictatorship, to bring about reconciliation among the peoples? They are only making some show-case efforts much due to pressure from outside, and more from self-centered political perspective (chinthanayas). When the state itself stands accused of all possible human rights violations both in the north and in the south, when they assume dictatorial powers over law and order in the society, how can they be architects of reconciliation? Left to themselves the most they are doing is to build roads and airports or hire some intellectuals and careerists as ministers, to cover up the skeletons in state’s cupboard vis a vis the international community. 

3.      Only religions and their leaders  can talk “truth to power’
It is in this helpless situation, the peace-loving people expect the active leadership of non-political leaders to question the efforts of the state for reconciliation. They rightly expect their non-political leaders to proclaim courageously truth and justice which are the ingredients of genuine peace and reconciliation. They will expect the politicians to make genuine efforts towards  an acceptable and durable political solution. This is what Mr. Tilak Jaythileka referred to as Bishop Lakshman’s principled opposition to opportunistic politics and his immense capacity to ‘talk truth to power’. Timidity and passivity of non-political, especially of religious leaders are the worst enemies of Sri Lanka. The bishop knew and practiced how “to embody the rare and splendid fusion between thought and action, religion and politics, because he had realized, not without struggle, that spiritual emancipation must, in the last analysis, rely almost exclusively on the liberation of man as a political animal”. 

4.      Religions in the thinking of Bishop Lakshman
In the thinking of Bishop Lakshman, peaceful coexistence of a multi ethnic multi religious people, cannot be achieved with pious exhortations to be good and loving to one another, nor merely to pray for peace as is done by many, but engaging with the agents and powers that be to make a change. His concern for the Sinhala Buddhist peasantry, the welfare of Tamil estate labourers and for the rights of the Ceylon Tamils did not stop with words of exhortation but moved all over the island meeting other leaders including politicians, to talk of the problems. With respect to the grievances of the Tamils he had already daringly encouraged devolution of power from the center to the peripheries. No one can say that he was overstepping his religious boundaries. Anything that concerns the welfare of man is also a concern of the religions and their leaders. 
Religions must stand up not simply for religious truths regarding sin and evil as taught by their religions to those who come to them or invite them, but proclaim eloquently truths concerning man, his dignity, rights and peaceful co-existence to the vital centres of society and to their leaders. Peaceful coexistence of all the peoples of Sri Lanka is possible only when other non-political leaders – religious, civil and social – respond to their role to “talk truth to power”. 

The late bishop was a model to many of our present religious leaders who tend to hide behind their titles, robes and temple walls, distancing themselves from the cries of victims of violence and war, merely issuing condemnations from their elevated seats, but never opening their mouth against lies and injustices nor lifting their finger to help the victims. 

5.      Role of all religions in Sri Lanka
I once had a dialogue with the Bishop, I think at Katuwapitiya at the ancestral home of Father Tissa Balasuriya about divine revelations and religions. It was clear to us that religions are all man-made on the basis of divine or super-human (Albert Einstein) revelations to man. And these religions must serve man and his peaceful living together. In such an understanding I ask,  Have the four religions in Sri Lanka lived up to this calling and did their duty by the nation? 

6.      Bishop as active member of many liberative organizations.
Bishop Lakshman was a Bishop for his diocese, a Christian leader for the churches, an instrument of inter-ethnic and inter religious dialogue to bring people of all origins closer to one another. True he lived in his church nourishing himself with the Word of God and sacraments, but worked both in and outside the church, with a vision to serve man – the center of service of all religions. Hence he devoted much of his time in liberative service for all - be they the poor Sinhala Buddhist peasants of the south or the Tamils laboring under sub-human conditions on the hills or the Ceylon Tamils discriminated and denied  their human rights. Organisations such as The Vimukthi Dharma Kendra, the Kurunegala group of the Amnesty International, Christian Workers Fellowship (CWF), Civil Rights Movement, were some he worked with. He helped in founding the Vimukthi Dharma Kendra (The Liberation Doctrine Centre), an organization for dialogue among the four major religions of Sri Lanka because he was convinced that religions join hands in liberating victims of injustices. Some of the Christian collaborators of the Bishop in his ministry were Sevaka Yohan Devananda, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, Fr. Paul Caspersz and Fr. Aloysius Peiris, who were founders respectively of the Centre for Society and Religion, Satyodaya and Tulana. It is with their inspiration I founded in 1986 in Jaffna the Centre for Better Society and invited Sinhala leaders from the south to talk to the Jaffna public.
I am sure there are many young religious and social leaders today  who can join hands and effectively face the present day challenges to the country and save the country from its descent towards a national suicide..

7.      Bishop’s efforts on behalf of Tamil Rights
As a Tamil catholic priest I had known Bishop during my years at the National Seminary in Ampitiya. In the name of the Tamils, I gratefully salute this great Sinhalese Christian leader, who stood out almost alone and courageously at that time, to apologize on behalf of the majority community to the victimized Tamils and gave a historic pastoral exhortation at that time to his Diocese. The ecumenical, the inter-religious and the socio-political relationships he fostered with many outside his church was exemplary. 

Collaboration among religious leaders need to be initiated especially by Christian leaders because of their membership from both sides of the divide and have the needed personal and strategic resources. I will exhort my Christian brothers and sisters to come out of their minority-complex or European-mentality, think and act together with others for the common good.

8.      A humble appeal in memory of the Bishop
As a man of religion, who has dedicated most of my service to educating Sinhalese and Tamil priests (some of them bishops today), and in spite of being misunderstood to the extent of hate-labels especially  from the government, I will plead in the name of Truth and Justice and in memory of good Bishop Lakshman, with the present religious leaders from all religions, not to miss the present historic chance once again in building a unity out of diversity. If a unity of peaceful co-existence has to be realized on the island, even if Tamils or Muslims are pushed to an unwanted separation (divorce) even then, to stay as good and peaceful neighbors within the island, the unique role of religions and religious leaders are indispensable. This is not the time for religions to be self-centric and enclosed within the walls of their  own worship and pedestals for preaching, but to take the role of religion vis a vis the decision-makers in serving the multiethnic multi-religious communities of the island to live peacefully on the basis of truth and justice.
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