Sri Lanka: “Fundamentalists see Christianity as a threat.”

Bishop Noel Emmanuel of the Trincomalee diocese in eastern Sri Lanka has visited the international offices of the Pontifical Foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) in Germany. In May 2009 the end of a 25-year civil war in Sri Lanka was officially declared. Separatist Tamil insurgents, who are mostly Hindus, were defeated by the island’s government, which represents the Sinhalese and mostly Buddhist majority. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) demanded greater political autonomy in the eastern and northern provinces, where the Tamil population is concentrated. In a conversation with Esther Gaitan-Fuertes, Bishop Emmanuel lamented the Sri-Lankan government’s lack of interest in promoting reconciliation after decades of civil conflict. He also expressed his concern about the fundamentalists’ hostility towards Christians and other minorities. 

ACN:  What is the situation of the Sri Lankan people nowadays?
Bishop Noel Emmanuel: Sri Lanka is struggling economically. Our main source of income is tourism. There is a high unemployment rate especially among the youth. University graduates protest because of their lack of job prospects. In the past Sri Lanka used to have a high migration rate, but it has now decreased. One of the reasons is that Sri Lankan migrants had a harsh experience working abroad, especially women. Another reason is that those children left behind by their parents, especially when the mother had also migrated, suffered harassment and even abuse.

Your diocese is in the majority Tamil eastern part of the country. What is the specific situation there?
In the eastern region there is high unemployment and the still unsolved problem of the displaced people. After the conflict ended, the confiscated land was not returned to the owners. The military refuse to do so because they are economically exploiting these lands: they have built hotels, restaurants, etc. However, the new president was able to make major resettlements of people even against the military’s wishes.

The eastern part of Sri Lanka comprises 3 districts that used to be one diocese until it was split in two in July 2012: the diocese of Batticaloa encompasses the districts of Batticaloa and Ampara, in which majority of faithful are Tamil; and the diocese of Trincomalee covers the district of the same name, where we have both Tamil and Sinhalese.

After so many years of civil conflict, has there been a reconciliation process in Sri Lanka?
Actually there has been no serious reconciliation process after the war, because the winning side saw no need for it. They had won and they were now in control – that was it. They see Sri Lanka as a Buddhist Sinhalese nation and they are not interested in reconciliation with other groups. After going through such a long war, they do not want to live anything similar again. So the surviving members of the LTTE had to go through a rehabilitation programme, they are constantly monitored and have to report from time to time to the authorities. Currently they have formed a sort of political group to defend their rights before the government.

On the other hand, there is still the problem of the displaced people whose lands had been taken by the military. There are still people protesting against the government and the military because of this issue. After the government changed in 2015 we had a bit of hope. But the new president could not bring any changes due to a corrupted system.

In this political context, what is the position of the Church?
The Church has a good relationship with the government. There is even a Catholic minister for Christian affairs; we meet occasionally to present our issues. Since government officials are present in these meetings, decisions can be made easily. The minister for Christian affairs  meets the Bishops during  Bishops’ Conference, so they are quite supportive.

So there are some government members with a positive attitude on one hand; on the other, there is the problem of the Buddhist fundamentalists who think Sri Lanka should be a Buddhist-only nation. They try to colonise the majority Tamil areas in the north and east, and make sure there are Sinhalese in these regions.

Are these Buddhist fundamentalists especially aggressive against Christians?
Fundamentalists see Christianity as a threat, because we have both ethnic groups (Tamil and Sinhalese) among Christians, whereas Muslims and Hindus are Tamil and Buddhists are Sinhalese.

In the north these fundamentalists are trying to destroy Tamil culture and tradition by introducing alcohol, drugs and even prostitution to disturb the youth. Northern students used to score highest marks nationwide; now their performance is worsening. These fundamentalists even receive economic support from the government: they don’t want to have 100% Tamil Hindu areas after what happened with the LTTE terrorist movement. So they promote the colonisation of the north and east by Muslims and Sinhalese to avoid similar situations. It happens even in my diocese: the government puts pressure on local officers not to give land to Tamils but to Sinhalese from the south.

What is the current situation of the Church in Trincomalee?
We have 15 parishes in total in which 36 native priests and 10 religious congregations serve the faithful; we no longer have missionaries. Among Catholics, Sinhalese are a minority. We have Sinhala communities in 3 parishes.

When appointing priests, we need to take into account the community in which they will serve. So in these 3 parishes I have just mentioned, the priest needs to speak both Sinhalese and Tamil. Masses are either bilingual or in one of the two languages depending on the number of faithful who attend each Mass. Diocese in general struggle financially. There are damaged Churches as to be repaired or new churches that need to be built, new parishes to be created and we have very limited resources.

And which are the main challenges in your diocese?
Our biggest challenge is education. Catholics are a minority; Muslims and Hindu Tamils are in charge of education, so the good teachers are appointed to Muslim and Hindu schools. There are 8 state-run Catholic schools with religious personnel. I organised a forum with all Catholic school principals; we organise regular meetings to share difficulties and solutions, such as extra tuition classes for Christian students, and seminars to support Catholic schools.

Another challenge, especially in one remote parish where there are more Sinhalese, is posed by two fundamentalist Buddhist monks. Many families are mixed Catholic and Buddhist. So these monks invite them to their temple and buy them goods to try to win them over. These monks are supported by Army officers who are also Buddhists.

Development, rehabilitation and reconciliation will not be possible if Sri Lanka continues with this attitude. Yet the Catholic Church always works towards reconciliation and peace.

In recent years ACN has helped the diocese of Trincomalee with the completion of a catechetical centre, a new vehicle for pastoral purposes, and the formation for Tamil and Sinhalese catechists. Bishop Noel Emmanuel sent a heartfelt thank-you message to ACN’s friends and benefactors on behalf of the Church in Sri Lanka. “We are very grateful for ACN’s support and prayers for the Sri Lankan people during our decades-long civil conflict”, he said. “Aid to the Church in Need is a great support to our diocese… We pray for you, you may not know us but you willingly commit yourselves to supporting us, both financially and through prayer. Thank you and God bless you.”

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Founded in 1947 as a Catholic aid organization for war refugees and recognized as a papal foundation since 2011, ACN is dedicated to the service of Christians around the world, through information, prayer and action, wherever they are persecuted or oppressed or suffering material need. ACN supports every year an average of 6000 projects in close to 150 countries, thanks to private donations, as the foundation receives no public funding.