The Church confirms the visit, but there are still doubts, even among bishops, about President Rajapaksa’s moves

| by Paolo Affatato

( December 28, 2014, Rome, Sri Lanka Guardian) Preparations continue, and the Papal visit twill take place, despite the doubts that clouded the event in the last months. The Sri-Lankan Church confirms Pope Francis’ pilgrimage from the 13th to the 15th of January; but President Mahinda Rajapaksa also confirms presidential elections on the 8th of January. In this state of affairs, the Pope is, whether he wants to or not, one of the deciding factors in the electoral campaign, in a contest between two candidates that promises to be very balanced. And, hopefully, it will be ‘free from any violence’ as the two candidates wished together in a public statement.

The Church had long discussions within itself. The first marks of dissent surfaced very early on, up to asking Francis to call off his visit. The planned visit to the Madhu sanctuary, in Tamil lands, which will take up three hours of the busy Papal visit, will not be enough to become aware of the wounds, still open five years after the end of the civil war.
The first unavoidable aspect is exploitation. Despite the bishops inviting the candidates not to take advantage of the ‘Francis effect’, Rajapaksa has been calculative. He will be the president who welcomes the Pope, also thanks to the good offices of Colombo’s cardinal, Malcolm Ranjith. This is already an incontrovertible fact. His adversary, Maithripala Sirisena, who was a former minister in the same government, can only take note of this. Calling for a vote well before his mandate ran out, and after a change in the Constitution, was a cunning political move. That is because it falls so close to the Papal visit, when the dates have already been fixed, organisation is underway and substantial capital has already been spent. Rajapaksa met Francis in the Vatican and now he cashes in on the State visit. Not bad for a president who has difficulties on the international stage.

The second aspect is Rajapaksa’s international credibility, which is at stake. In the last five years, the public image of the Sri-Lankan government deteriorated due to the accusations, even from the UN, of human rights violations during the last stage in the 2009 civil war. To hinder reconciliation, there are both the injustice and impunity for the abuses perpetrated by the army, and for the disappearance of activists – including some Catholic priests – but also, above all, the contemptuous language still used by the government in regards to the sufferings of part of the population. With the Papal visit, Rajapaksa will have the chance to clean up his public image.

Sri-Lankan Catholics, who are only 6.5% of a 70%-Buddhist population, face a dilemma. Every Catholic experiences the presence of the Pope as an extraordinary privilege to his country. However, the island, once called the ‘pearl of the Indian Ocean’, has lately become the ‘tear of the Indian Ocean’. It can be meaningful for a Pope to go there at a historical moment, marked by discrimination and abuse, which neutral observers cannot quantify since the government forbids UN envoys to enter the Northern and Eastern areas of the country, where the Tamil population is still under its thumb.

Nevertheless, even putting the Pope’s visit in this context, which belongs to Francis’ as prophet of peace and hope, the chance of exploitation remains very high. Associations and bodies of Sri-Lankan civil society are calling for a change in the government and criticise the corruption, nepotism and political oppression. During the vote in January, where two candidates of the Buddhist signalise party are running, religious and ethnic minorities could be a crucial factor for victory. Rajapaksa is well aware of this, and his closeness to Cardinal Ranjith is shows his attempt to be appreciated as the ‘friend of the Catholics’. Because of this, there are faithful who criticise Ranjith, accusing him of being ‘too close’ to the current president.

The Church had long discussions within itself. The first marks of dissent surfaced very early on, up to asking Francis to call off his visit. The planned visit to the Madhu sanctuary, in Tamil lands, which will take up three hours of the busy Papal visit, will not be enough to become aware of the wounds, still open five years after the end of the civil war. Even among bishops, there is some discontent. The bishop of Anuradhapura, Norbert Andradi, expressed his doubts about the possibilities of the visit, only to then withdraw them in line with the official position of the bishops.

The Tamil Bishop Rayappu Joseph, in an interview with Eglises d’Asie, denounces that ‘the government fixed the vote close to the arrival of the Pope’, remembering the violence which characterises the pre- and post-election period. He denounced the ‘Machiavellian plan’ of the government which, with 70% of the military forces assigned to Tamil lands, carries out a systematic violation of human rights, confiscating lands and building Buddhist temples with the aim of ‘altering the demographic make-up’ and limit the Tamils to an ‘Indian reservoir’.

Because of this, with Francis’ imminent trip and the president ready to capitalise on the benefits, part of the Sri-Lankan Church feels trapped. It will be up to Francis to play his cards in this delicate game.

( The writer is a columnist with the Vatican Insider, where this piece was originally appeared) 

ARCHIVES FROM AUGUST 2007 TO JANUARY 2015