Church in Sri Lanka and challenge of interreligious dialogue

We have arrived to the last episode of our visit to Sri Lanka with the MAGIS Foundation. What emerges is a vital Church, striving for full religious freedom and still waiting for answers on the 2019 Easter attacks, while struggling to overcome ongoing clericalism in its ranks.

By Antonella Palermo - Negombo (Sri Lanka)

Getting a clearer picture of the challenge of interreligious dialogue in Sri Lanka was one of the objectives of our trip with the MAGIS Foundation (Jesuit Movement and Action Together for Development), which supports several projects in the Asian nation, especially in the educational field. These projects (in two villages in the north of the country) were also visited by a delegation from the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI)  early in February.

What emerged was the image of a Church which, although vital, in some areas is still striving for full religious freedom and waiting for satisfactory answers from political and judicial authorities on the 2019 Easter attacks , while struggling to fully assimilate the synodal spirit overcoming ongoing clericalism in its ranks.

Still awaiting truth on the Easter attacks

"We are not yet satisfied with the answers they have given to us", says Fr.  Manjula Niroshan, parish priest of St. Sebastian's Church, in Negombo, one of the three churches which during the Easter celebrations of 21 April 2019, suffered the coordinated attack of six suicide bombers, who also targeted three hotels in different cities. The attacks killed 279 people and injured many others. The dissatisfaction expressed by the priest is what the Sri Lankan Catholic community has been expressing since the beginning, criticizing the government's inadequate investigations and even going so far as to present a petition to the United Nations asking for an international enquiry.

The renovation of this place of worship was carried out quickly and now the church, among the forty in the town, appears welcoming and pleasant, although it is constantly monitored by the police. In some cases, entire families were killed on that occasion, Fr.  Niroshan says, in other cases only the parents remained alive.

"Several survivors are wary because they are alone at home, others are afraid of the future, they have no hope because perhaps their only child has gone, but faith helps them” he says. They are trying to manage their daily lives still with some difficulties, but with the help of counsellors  and social assistance, they feel cared for and have got over the trauma". The parish priest explained that the Church community has showed constant closeness.

The Church’s support to the victims

There are around two thousand Catholic families in the St. Sebastian’s parish. Fr. Niroshan says that the survivors have been helped to rebuild some houses, to obtain financial support to start up commercial activities , to raise funds for those who suffered permanent injuries "We helped them by paying bills and   medical expenses. People have come to terms with what happened, up to a certain point - the priest says - but it's not easy 

He explained that the tragedy doesn’t seem to have affected relations with other religious communities which are generally good. "There is a lot of collaboration and we also work with representatives of other faiths. After all, Sri Lanka has a multitude of religions. In the case of the Easter attacks, some wanted to provoke a reaction from us, but thanks to our Church leaders we haven’t allowed any kind of retaliation to happen."

The Sri Lankan Catholic community’s commitment to fraternity and dialogue

"Indeed, five years after those events, we have no fear of living in this country because we are accepted by people", confirmed the rector of the national seminary, a beautiful English-style structure founded by the Society of Jesus, then passed on to the Oblates, and currently belonging to the Sri Lankan Church.

Father Quintus Fernando SJ explaines  that Christians understand that the attacks were not religiously motivated, but had a political motive "to sow religious hatred. We need politicians who love the people, who love the nation and who love the country ", said the Jesuit, confirming  that there is mutual respect and fraternity between the various faith communities.

"There are no tensions with the Buddhist majority, not even with the Hindus and Muslims," although some problems emerged when the Wahhabi schools radicalized Islam."

Fr. Fernando further explained that that the aggressive proselytism of the Evangelicals has had a prejudicial impact on the way in which Christians are perceived by members of other faiths.

The path towards full religious freedom

During his Apostolic Journey to Sri Lanka in January 2015 Pope Francis  lamented that for too many years men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence and appealed  for healing and unity. : "I hope – he said - that interreligious and ecumenical collaboration will demonstrate that, to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters, men and women must not forget their own identity, be it ethnic or religious".

Today, Bishop Jude Nishantha Silva of Badulla, speaks about the great responsibility that religious leaders have in helping to create a peaceful climate in Sri Lanka. The Bishop  goes so far as to say that the political agenda lacks interest in really shedding light on what  was behind the 2019 brutal attacks. "We need interreligious dialogue and relationships with other religions, but it seems to me that only Catholics are the ones who care about it, perhaps who really want it."

Bishop Silva said he can’t rule out that something similar to what happened five years ago could happen again in the future. "There are risks", he said.  He also lamented the fact that, as a minority, it is not so simple to build a church and to obtain land to do so. "In my diocese alone, we have been trying to obtain some land just to build a small chapel for almost 15 years. It’s area where around thirty families live. We have discussed the project several times, even with various ministers, but they still cannot make a decision. It's pathetic."

Overcoming clericalism

Despite openness to interreligious dialogue, he Sri Lankan Church has to deal with various forms of 'closure' in its ranks. This aspect has been  highlighted by several Jesuits in the country who have remarked that, especially in some areas of the north, the old caste system still conditions the Church’s pastoral work.

Sister Patricia Lemus, a Comboni Sister from Guatemala, who has been in Hatton for four and a half years, is a collaborator of the Loyola Centre. She mentioned some issues rooted in local culture that hinder the construction of a Church in which lay people and religious actively collaborate in mutual exchange.  

She doesn’t hide her unease of living in an "overly hierarchical" ecclesial context in which laypeople have no space, and are not even allowed to distribute Communion to the faithful at Mass. "With regards to being a synodal Church, we are still a little behind here, in fact it is one of our struggles: how to find collaboration. There is still the weight of a pyramidal structure, with too much clericalism,” she said. “We hope that, little by little, by meeting together the nuns from four different continents can sow a seed. We still often see that they don't mix, there are congregations made up either only of Sinhalese or only of Tamils", she added.

Sister Patricia praised the Ignatian spirituality which helps to live an authentically missionary style. "I would like everyone to listen to the voice of Pope Francis for a more open and freer Church,” she says. For example, I really like this centre because the majority is Hindu, and in the end we are looking for the same God in different forms.”

The prophetic role of the Tulana Centre

This openness, on which the Document on Human Fratenrity insisits so much, is at the heart of the theological reflection of the Sri Lankan Jesuit Aloysius Pieris, founder in 1974 of the Research Centre for Encounter and Dialogue of Tulana, in Kelaniya, near Colombo, which he still runs.

The ninety-year-old energetic priest lives in this sort of oasis where works of art of great value, mainly contemporary art sculptures with sacred themes are displayed among dense vegetation.

Born as a retreat place for the religious of the Society of Jesus, over the years the Tulana Center has strongly characterized itself as a space for Buddhist-Christian interreligious dialogue. It even hosted some 'dissident' Buddhist monks at the time of the civil war, he said.

"The Magisterium of Pope Francis has renewed the enthusiasm I had after the Council", he exclaims. "Jesus teaches us the friendship that embraces everyone, I hope that the Church follows him, Francis". Father Aloysius' dream is that of a free Asia, freed from discrimination and weaponization of faith.

The centre is regularly frequented by Ambrogio Bongiovanni, president of MAGIS, who has worked for the Indian subcontinent for over thirty years.

"Interreligious dialogue has as its overreaching objective that of seeking God and spurring transformative social action, however, always referring to the transcendent dimension. In the West - he noted - dialogue is certainly assuming significant importance because pluralism is knocking on our doors, but we sometimes run the risk of reducing it to a merely social experience, if not to a merely political tooò".

Thanks to the MAGIS project sponsored by the Italian Agency for International Cooperation, which is taking off in Sri Lanka, all the precious documentation kept in this prophetic reality in the country will find its place in a renovated building and made usable again by scholars and experts. It will be an opportunity for further training for those who want to refocus on the most authentic origins of interreligious dialogue in promoting reconciliation.



Thank you for reading our article. You can keep up-to-date by subscribing to our daily newsletter. Just click here

18 March 2024, 18:18