Carry on goal to protect minorities’ freedom, punish perpetrators – US commission to Sri Lanka gov’t.

Sri Lanka's new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

Sri Lanka’s new President Maithripala Sirisena screenshot Sri Lanka Mirror Facebook

A US delegation, which visited Sri Lanka to assess the climate for religious freedom, other human rights, and tolerance, have noted progress on the issues in Sri Lanka since the country’s 2015 election. It cited the importance of punishing perpetrators of attacks and stopping harassment of religious groups trying to build houses of worship.

Commissioner Eric P. Schwartz of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said he met with Minister of Foreign Affairs Mangala Samaraweera, Justice Minister Wijedasa Rajapaksa, Minister of Buddha Sasana Karu Jayasuriya, and Minister of Muslim Religious Affairs Abdel Halim Mohamed Hasheem, as well as representatives from Sri Lanka’s diverse religious communities during the March 15-17 visit.

“We are encouraged by statements made by officials with whom we met,” Schwartz said in a statement posted on the commission’s website.

He cited  among “welcome” developments comments he heard supporting national reconciliation among all Sri Lanka’s religious and ethnic communities. 

“After a devastating war and reports that religious minority communities were increasingly subjected to attacks in recent years, the new government’s engagement with religious minorities is an important step forward in the effort to promote national unity and increased space for all religious groups,” the commissioner pointed out.

He also cited government’s measures in the areas of freedom of expression and association noting these “tend to create a climate conducive to religious freedom.”

Buddhism is the official religion in the country where Buddhists reportedly comprise more than 69 percent of the 21.87 million people. Most of the rest are Muslims (7.6 percent) or Hindu (7.1 percent). Christians make up about 6.2 percent of the population.

Expressing pleasure in hearing that reports of abuses against minority religious communities have diminished over the last few months, Schwartz encouraged the government to hold perpetrators of such crimes accountable. “We believe accountability will encourage a critical sense of security and well-being among affected communities,” he stressed.

He also said representatives of civil society at meetings reported “continued concerns about the ability of religious communities to practice their chosen faiths without restriction,” citing experiences of intimidation or harassment when trying to build houses of worship. 

“We hope and trust Sri Lankan officials will address these issues in the weeks and months to come,” Schwartz said.

The U.S. Congress created USCIRF in the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) as an independent, bipartisan, federal government entity to monitor the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provide policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

Maithripala Sirisena won as president in the Jan. 8 polls set by incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa in the latter’s bid to seek a third term. Sirisena has pledged to abolish the executive presidency within 100 days of being elected, and repeal the controversial eighteenth amendment and restore the 17th amendment that limits the president’s rule to two terms and sets other restraints on the presidency.

 

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After 10 years, Sri Lanka elects new president

Sri Lanka Maithri screen shot Manifesto

Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisana screen shot of Manifesto from ground views.org/wp

President Maithripala Sirisena, 63,  took his oath of office as the 6th Executive President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka before Supreme Court Judge K. Sri Pawan at the Independence Square in Colombo Friday evening, Jan. 9, the Sri Lankan online newspaper Daily Mirror reported.

Sri Lankan president, Mahinda Rajapaksa conceded defeat in this morning’s polls ending his 10-year rule, which he tried to extend by removing the constitutional term limit for the presidency. He called elections two years ahead of schedule and was reportedly widely predicted to win before his party mate and health minister defected from the party to run against him.

Around the time Rajapaksa conceded defeat, the Department of Elections said it had counted 56.5 percent of the votes in favor of Sirisena while Rajapaksa garnered 42 percent.

Analysts say aside from winning votes of Tamil and Muslim electors in the countryside, Sirisena, a Sinhala Buddhist, also split votes of southern Sinhalese electors that traditionally backed Rajapaksa who led the government when it defeated Tamil militants in 2009.

Recently, however, Rajapaksa, 69, has been criticized for his authoritarian leadership and appointing family members to key positions in government.

Sirisena raised these issues in his campaign and promised to fight corruption and bring constitutional reforms to weaken the power of the presidency. His platform of government or “Manifesto”  promises he would work for genuine democracy by amending the constitution, review economic and development ventures and policies, promote a moral society, food security and sustainable agriculture, provide healthcare for all Sri Lankans, reform education, among others.

The elections were conducted just 5 days before Pope Francis’ pastoral visit to Sri Lanka to canonize its first saint and pray with pilgrims at the Marian Shrine in Madhu in a northern district heavily affected by the civil war.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith had said the candidates pledged at a meeting with bishops they would work for a “peaceful atmosphere” during Pope Francis’ visit to their country Jan. 13-15. Since Rajapaksa invited the pope for a state visit, the defeated president “gave his personal assurance that … he will not allow anything untoward to happen during the Papal Visit,” Cardinal Ranjith added in an interview in mid-December.

 

Sri Lanka Commentary: Blessed Joseph Vaz canonization

Joseph Vaz devotion card

Contributed photo

Denigrating the holiest event Lankan Catholics awaited for 303 years

Sri Lanka has decided to hold a presidential election on Jan. 8 – just one week before Pope Francis visits the country. Such advancing of an election, not due for another two years, has deeply hurt the country’s Catholics.

Catholics invited the pope to canonize Blessed Joseph Vaz, the country’s first saint, not for a State visit. The event was set alongside the saint’s Jan. 17 death anniversary. Catholics wished it to be a religious event, with minimal State involvement just for routine protocol. With deep frustration, they now watch the political Trojan horse invade the sanctuary.

The spiritual upbuild for the canonization by groups such as the Joseph Vaz National Secretariat was first distracted with Church-State-planned pageantry for the papal visit. Thereafter political posters made it a tool for election propaganda. Election-related discord and violence may soon overshadow the event. Church leaders little realize the faith erosion caused by letting politics ruin the holiest event Catholics eagerly awaited for 303 years.

Much public distress about the event’s politicization has been expressed via social media and other public exchanges. Many Catholics have urged that the canonization be postponed. Others even say it could be held in Rome like the recent canonization of Indian Saints Chavara and Alphonsa. Some prefer such moves to political denigration of the name of Father Vaz who eschewed politics, and ministered to victims of political conflict.

Sri Lanka Papal visit FB screenshot

The Indian priest had arrived in the country in 1687 dressed as a beggar to avoid Dutch colonizers’ ban on entry of Catholic priests. For 10 years he was the only priest serving the entire country until confreres joined him. During his 24-year apostolate, he searched for Sinhala or Tamil Catholics living in hiding in the aftermath of political conflict between Portuguese and Dutch colonizers. Buddhists and Hindus valued his ascetic witness of treating king and commoner with equanimity.

Saint John Paul II, who beatified Father Vaz in 1995, once described him as the greatest missioner in Asia next to Saint Francis Xavier. It was an affirmation of Lankans’ acclaim of this holy missioner’s sanctity.

Since the missioner’s death in 1711, about 50 books on his life and service have been published in English, French, Italian, Konkani, Sinhalese and Tamil. Devotion to this Apostle of Sri Lanka has spread locally as well as in his Indian homeland. Since his beatification, 10 venues in four Sri Lankan dioceses hold novena devotions to Blessed Vaz. Nine dioceses have dedicated 23 churches and chapels in his honor.

Apart from such public veneration, the aura of his mission still survives in the pastoral field. Trincomalee and Kurunegala dioceses have named their minor seminaries after him. Colombo, Galle and Kurunegala dioceses have opened lay theologates to promote his pioneer mission of indigenization.

Amid such evidence of his living memory, Catholics countrywide have eagerly awaited the peak moment of the preparatory work by the Joseph Vaz National Secretariat, headed by Bishop Vianney Fernando of Kandy. But the spiritual benefit of these efforts will be lost if election-related rivalry and recrimination invade its final stage. Church leaders should make alternate arrangements if they cannot ensure Catholics a prayerful atmosphere to celebrate their first saint without being hassled by election unrest or militarized restrictions.

Hector Welgampola
welgampo@gmail.com 

Hector Welgampola

Veteran Asian Church journalist Hector Welgampola from Sri Lanka has retired as Executive Editor of the former Union of Catholic Asian News (UCAN) based in Hong Kong, then Bangkok. Before UCAN, Hector headed editorial teams of newspapers in Sri Lanka. Since retiring Hector has lived in Australia with his wife, Rita. He authored the resource book Asian Church Glossary and Stylebook.

 

Pope Francis, visit war-torn areas and survivors – Tamil Civil Society Groups

Tamil Civil Society Forum (TCSF) has called upon Pope Francis to visit war-torn areas in the North and East and visit the survivors of the “war  against Tamils”, as part of his visit to Sri Lanka in 2015.

TCSF – a network of Tamil civil society social activists from the North and East including Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, aired their appeal in a letter to the Pope on Sunday. It requested him to openly call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to genuinely address grievances of Tamils during his meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

The text of the letter is published on Eye Sri Lanka

Address grievances of all factions – human rights, justice and peace advocate

In her presentation to last month’s International Conference on Politics and International Affairs in Athens, Salma Yusuf, pointed out that while the defeat of the militant Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) in May 2009 ended the three decades-long conflict, its root causes remain.

Yusuf, university lecturer and adviser to programs on human rights law, transitional justice, comparative social justice and peace-guilding, stressed that grievances of all factions in the conflict have to be addressed. 

“When advocating reconciliation and unity, the fears and anxieties of all communities must be acknowledged, understood and addressed,” Yusuf said.

She warned, “An over-emphasis on the grievances of the Tamil community alone which is the natural tendency can lead to new waves of conflict and at must be avoided at all costs.” 

Read full text of her presentation  titled Sri Lanka: Reconciliation is Both a Process and a Goal 

Related posts

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-Muslim Clashes Reveal the Evil of Politicising Religion

Ruki Fernando Out of Detention, Is He Free?

What Can Asia Expect from Upcoming Papal Visits?

 

Do more to stop “anti-Muslim” riots- Islamic nation reps to Sri Lanka president

Ambassadors and Heads of Mission and High Commissioners representing Muslim nations in Sri Lanka reportedly met with Sri Lanka President Mahinda Rajapaksa at Temple Trees and declared that all Sri Lanka Sinhala Buddhists will stand to lose their jobs in their nations and other barriers would be place on Sri Lanka immediately due to government’s failure to stop “anti-Muslim” sentiments and violence spreading nationwide.

Officials at the meeting reportedly represented governments of Bangladesh, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, Indonesia, Kuwait, malaysia, Maldives, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palestine, Turkey, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

The report cites the UAE Ambassador saying that his government believes the president’s brother and Defense Secretary Gothabhaya Rajapaksa and the military’s links to the anti-Muslim sentiments and violence.

Officials at the meeting reportedly gathered by Cabinet Minister Rauf Hakeem expressed dissatisfaction and warned Rajapaksa that if the anti-Muslim riots and attacks around the island are not stopped, there will be “severe repercussions” on him and his government diplomatically and economically.

Violence persists even after the Sinhalese who comprise 74 percent of Sri Lanka’s population celebrated victory in May 2009 against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) who fought a bloody 26-year separatist war.

This time police are pointing the finger at a Buddhist extremist group called Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) – meaning the army of the Buddhist power – led by ethno-fascist monks as leading the riots last week that left 4 people dead, 80 wounded and hundreds of homes and shops destroyed.

Since the outburst of riots last week, all Arab and Islamic countries have placed an indefinite travel ban on Sri Lanka. This has reportedly significantly contributed to Sri Lanka’s tourism revenue the last two years.

Sri Lanka’s highest foreign exchange earner is also reportedly from expatriate labor remittances from the Middle East and other Muslim countries, which has been the sole provider for Sri Lanka’s foreign reserves.

Imposing restrictions on Sri Lankan labour in the Middle East and Muslim countries, could send the country’s economy plunging overnight, the report said.

Last year alone, these nations provided almost US$ 2 billion in grant aid to Sri Lanka for development projects in education, medical and health care, the report added.

If Islamic countries restrict oil supplying, Sri lanka will be compelled to import from Russia at three times the price per barrel of crude oil.