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.

 

Gearing up for Papal Visit 2015, Bl. Vaz canonization – pastoral letter

WELCOMING THE VICAR OF CHRIST ON THE OCCASION OF THE CANONIZATION OF BLESSED JOSEPH VAZ

PASTORAL LETTER ISSUED BY THE CATHOLIC BISHOPS’ CONFERENCE OF SRI LANKA

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Sri Lanka, screen shot

We are eagerly awaiting the arrival of His Holiness Pope Francis on our soil on January 13, 2015 as the Vicar of Christ and the Successor of Peter. It is with great joy that we welcome our Holy Father into our midst.

Already by the simplicity of his life, his sense of evangelical poverty and Christ like compassionate love, specially for the poor and the suffering, the Holy Father has become a much revered and loved spiritual leader of the whole world. The Pope’s visit therefore, is a great blessing not only to the Church in Sri Lanka but also to the whole Nation. All preparations are underway and are progressing smoothly to welcome the Holy Father.

The Holy Father will arrive on January 13, 2015 at 9.00 am at Bandaranaike International Airport and after the preliminary State Welcome, the Holy Father will proceed to the Archbishop’s House for a meeting with the Bishops. On the 13th at 5.00 pm, His Holiness will pay a courtesy call on the President of the country and at 6.00 pm the Holy Father will meet Religious Leaders of all faiths, at the BMICH. The highlight of the Holy Father’s visit undoubtedly will be the Canonization of our Beloved Apostle, at a Holy Mass to be presided over by the Supreme Pontiff, at Galle Face Esplanade on January 14, 2015 at 8.30 am. The same afternoon His Holiness will proceed to the Hallowed Shrine of Our Lady of Madhu, for a prayer service. The following morning. after a short visit to the Chapel of Our Lady of Lanka at the Benedict XVIth Institute at Bolawalana, Negombo, the Holy Father will leave our shores at 9.00 am.

We, therefore, exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious, to flock to Galle Face Esplanade for the Holy Mass, during which we shall receive the First Saint of Mother Lanka, on January 14, 2015 in large numbers, as this is a unique occasion for all of us.

Our Joy of the visit of the Universal Shepherd is further enhanced by the decision of the Holy Father to Canonise our beloved Apostle, Blessed Joseph Vaz.

Joseph Vaz devotion card

We have prayed earnestly and yearned for this day to dawn. We thank God our loving Father for His unfailing providential care in saving the faith of our forefathers through the indefatigable labours of this great missionary.

We are deeply indebted to Blessed Joseph Vaz for his zeal, heroic sanctity and unquenchable thirst for souls that made him to come to our land and to help our forefathers to be strengthened in their faith.

We, therefore, exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious, to flock to Galle Face Esplanade for the Holy Mass, during which we shall receive the first Saint of Mother Lanka, on January 14, 2015, in large numbers, as this is a unique occasion for all of us.

In the coming weeks, we exhort all our faithful, Clergy and Religious to embark on a program me of deep spiritual preparation for both events, namely the Canonisation and the Papal Visit. For this purpose, we urge that all our parishes and Catholic institutions organize programmes of spiritual preparation:

a. The special thanksgiving prayer to be recited in our Churches and Institutions, after the Holy Mass. (If you do not have sufficient number of prayer cards for this purpose, each parish is requested to get them printed in the relevant languages and distribute it to all the faithful).

b. Exhort the faithful to light the altar lamp in every home and after the Family Rosary for the intentions of the Holy Father, recite the prayer of thanksgiving and sing the hymn of Blessed Joseph Vaz.

c. Encourage and provide opportunities for all our faithful to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and make a good Confession before the Papal Visit and the Canonisation.

d. Organise an hour of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on a chosen day of the week and urge the faithful to pray intensely for a deep renewal of our families and our Christian commitment to love, to serve and to proclaim the Lord by our lives and witness.

e. In the coming weeks in the Sunday homilies, make the faithful aware of the heroic sanctity and burning zeal and the life and ministry of the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Blessed Joseph Vaz.

f. During the period of preparation, encourage the faithful to visit the sick in the parish and pray with them and pay special attention to the poor and the marginalised. Let parishioners who can afford, assist financially those who have no
means to make the pilgrimage to Colombo on Januar 14.

g. Animate the faithful to be agents of peace and reconciliation in their own environment.

h. We exhort all our parishes to organise the joyous pealing of Church Bells in the whole Island, when the Holy Father makes the declaration of Canonisation during the Holy Mass.

i. Let us participate actively in the Holy Mass of Canonisation with great fervour and devotion by joining in the Mass prayers and the singing.

(Our spiritual preparation committee will be giving further directions for this purpose.)

The Assembly for the Holy Mass of canonization presided over by the Holy Father, would be a great manifestation of our gratitude to God Almighty and our profound gratitude to the Apostle of Sri Lanka, Blessed Joseph Vaz, who was sent to us by Our Loving Father through the intercession of Our Beloved Mother.

May this unique occasion draw down numerous blessings upon all of us and our families and our beloved Motherland by these precious events, which we eagerly await.

Signed

His Eminence Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith
President – CBCSL, Archbishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Rayappu Joseph
Vice President – CBCSL, Bishop of Mannar.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Valence Mendis
Secretary General – CBCSL, Bishop of Chilaw.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Kingsley Swampillai
Bishop of Trincomalee.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Thomas Savundranayagam
Bishop of Jaffna.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Vianney Fernando
Bishop of Kandy.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. J. Winston S. Fernando, S.S.S
Bishop of Badulla.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Norbert M. Andradi, O.M.I
Bishop of Anuradhapura.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Harold A. Perera
Bishop of Kurunegala.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Cletus C. Perera, O.S.B
Bishop of Ratnapura.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Joseph Ponniah
Bishop of Batticaloa.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Raymond K. Wickramasinghe
Bishop of Galle.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Marius Peiris
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. F. L. Emmanuel Fernando
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.
h Rt. Rev. Dr. Maxwell G. Silva
Auxiliary Bishop of Colombo.

Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Our Lady 8th December 2014.

[text of pastoral letter reprinted raw from Messenger, Sri Lanka’s weekly Catholic Newspaper, Dec. 14, 2014 issue]

Opinion : Sri Lanka polls and papal visit 2015 – Fr. Reid Shelton Fernando

Update of Catholic In Asia blog Faith in God for papal visit security in Sri Lanka – priest 

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Sri Lanka, screen shot

Sri Lankan theologian Father Reid Shelton Fernando in online discussion shared his opinion posted below on why Pope Francis should not come to Sri Lanka as planned following announcement of the Jan. 8, 2015 schedule of presidential elections in the South Asian nation. 

“According to the situation of the presidential elections fixed for the 8th (of)* January and (whether) it is (or not) conducive to have his (pope’s) visit on the 13th (of) Jan.

a)  The politcians have already politicized this visit by having banners, cut (outs) and posters.

b) Must take (into consideration) the political culture during elections – It is very violent and more it will be that the Ex- Govt. party member/ex minister is contesting against the incumbent president and already (campaigning) had started which will end up in violence and election malpractices. After the elections on the 8th when the results (are) announced on the 9th there will be vilification actions conducted.  This had been the trend in the last few decades.

c) In this mood as the Sri Lankan Catholic Community is only 6% to 7 % they (may also) face violent reactions from the Extremists Groups.

d) If the incumbent president is defeated then the new person elected will not be able to monitor the organization process of the papal visit.

e) From the side of the Church, the preparations for the papal visit was only to have an external show or demonstration of power. There is spiritual preparations planned but had not simmered down yet to the faithful in the grass-root level. Even (the) canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz has not figured in the last few months. 

f) There can be alternative proposal as His Holiness is due to Philippines in Jan 2016 for the International Eucharistic Congress, he can make the visit then there is enough time to prepare spiritually and take cognizance of the life and works of Blessed Joseph Vaz. Therefore, we can wait for one more year as there is no urgency. (What) is needed (is) that we – all faithful – be imbibed with the spirit of Blessed Joseph Vaz.

*words in parentheses were provided by Catholic In Asia editor 

Ruki Fernando out of detention – is he free?

Ruki Fernando photo on Facebook page of FORUM-ASIA which signed the Joint Statement with Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch calling Sri Lanka government to "Free Prominent Rights Defenders" and asserting that " Arrests of Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen are Attempts to Silence Critics" http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/17/sri-lanka-free-prominent-rights-defenders

Ruki Fernando photo on Facebook page of FORUM-ASIA which signed the Joint Statement with Amnesty International, International Commission of Jurists, International Crisis Group and Human Rights Watch calling Sri Lanka government to “Free Prominent Rights Defenders” and asserting that ” Arrests of Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen are Attempts to Silence Critics” http://www.hrw.org/news/2014/03/17/sri-lanka-free-prominent-rights-defenders

Human rights defenders Ruki Fernando and Father Praveen Mahesan are out of detention in Sri Lanka’s Terrorist Investigation Department (TID), but Fernando, in conversation over the phone from his home in Colombo told me hours after their release, he does not feel completely free.

Two days after their release, a Sri Lanka journalist reported  that authorities continued to “harass” Fernando and Mahesan

Police arrested Mahesan and Fernando on March 16 evening from Kilinochchi in northern Sri Lanka while the two were on a fact-finding mission in the area. They were taken in Tharmapuram near the home of Jeyakumari Belndra  who was arrested a week earlier for allegedly harboring an absconding Tiger. After being interrogated “harshly” in Kilinochchi and nearby Vavuniya, the two were finally detained at the TID headquarters in Colombo.

A few hours after Fernando’s release, he shared his sadness over continued “unjust” incarceration and maltreatment of other detainees mostly from north and northeast Sri Lanka. Rebels based there fought the government for a separate state until they were violently defeated in 2009.

The U.N. Human Rights Council in session in Geneva prepared to tackle a draft resolution sponsored by the United States and other countries calling for an international investigation into “past abuses and to examine more recent attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and religious minorities.”

Fernando expressed his and Fr. Mahesan’s gratitude to local and international NGOs, religious groupings, human rights bodies and governments around the world for throwing their support behind them and for demanding their release. The detainees freed last March 19 give credit to the pressure exerted by this movement for their release and safety in the hands of the police and interrogators.

Soon after this interview, the Sri Lanka government barred Fernando from giving interviews to foreign media.

Following is the full text of my conversation with Fernando:

” We left behind the many people who have been detained in the very place we were detained…unjustly…”

N.J. Viehland : Exactly when were you released?

Ruki Fernando : It was about 1:30 this morning in Sri Lanka.

What happened?

We were trying to do some fact finding about the human rights situation from war affected areas of the Kilinochchi district. When we were there on Sunday it was very very tense. During the whole Saturday and Sunday we were there. We encountered many many checkpoints which was not very usual because we had traveled in that area before.

We were stopped in several places. We were detained for 15 minutes, 20 minutes in certain places, our identity card numbers were taken.

When we went to visit someone in a house the army came and questioned us. That’s quite unusual that when we visit a person the army would come into the house and question you – a person in uniform and someone in civilian clothes.

When we went on to visit another lady, that lady was already being questioned by intelligence officials so we could not enter in her house. So throughout the one-and-a-half days we were intimidated. We faced restrictions and surveillance, and it was a very very tense situation. Then finally, it was around 10 pm on Sunday that were arrested.

Initially we were told that it was in relation to a shooting incident. Then we were told later that we were arrested in relation to supporting terrorism. We were questioned very very intensely. It was very harsh. We were not given access to our lawyers while on detention, although I made several requests.

When we were first arrested I made a request. Later I requested to get a senior official of the terrorist investigation department … that I want to talk with my lawyers. But throughout detention I was not given the opportunity. Many lawyers came to meet me, but the police did not allow any of them to meet me.

I learned I got lots of attention to this in Sri Lanka and also internationally and because of the many requests for the Sri Lanka government to release us from Sri Lankan organizations, individuals and also organizations and people around the world, and I believe because of that our safety while in detention was ensured. We were not physically harmed and eventually our release is also due to the work and the pressure exerted by so many people in Sri Lanka and all over the world.

Any faith-based group that demanded your release? 

Yes, one of the northern dioceses, the Jaffna diocese issued a statement from Catholics calling for our release. There are many individual priests who were also lobbying for us. But I don’t know if the archbishop of my diocese, (Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith) Colombo, has done something that I don’t know about. I know that it was brought to his attention and that there were requests from some people that he would make some intervention because he is very influential with the government.

Fact finding mission – who were you with and what were you investigating, exactly?

We were investigating the very tense situation. We wanted to know why it was so tense. We were looking into allegations of arbitrary arrests of several women in the north and the east during the week. That time we had heard of the allegations so wanted to do a fact-finding and also to get a sense of what the situation was on the ground.

Kilinochchi was the center of the LTTE (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), but we were not only in Kilinochchi town but also in the interior areas because we wanted to check them out. People in that area and also from outside had been telling me there was this situation of tension and arrests and so we wanted to go and look.

Apparently two women who were connected in some way to this person annexed to the key leader for the revival of the LTTE, one was his wife and another was also known to him were under surveillance or arrested. Then the third person is also a woman. We got reports of their arrest.

The government is very edgy – the police and the army. I don’t know if it is justified or not because I don’t have information, but according to what the police and army told me they are treating it as a very serious threat.

You think this reported revival of LTTE has something to do with your arrest? 

No. I think the government does not want the true situation in the northern part to be known to the rest of Sri Lanka and the rest of the world. The government does not want any different story than their own version to get out, and the government is particularly clear that no information should be provided to the UN Human Rights Council currently in session in Geneva.

During questioning they were even asking me who are you sending this information to. In fact one of the three leaders who came to arrest me, he was saying I am sending information to earn money. That was one of their acusation. Another is that I am causing discomfort to the government. This is in writing. So I told them I don’t understand how these can be a crime.

What were conditions in detention?

We were kept in an office the whole day. We were separate. There were few occasions that Father and I could talk to each other but they kept us separate. When we would start to talk about something, we would be separated again. We were kept in the Terrorist Investigation Department (TID).

Why and how were you released? 

They arrested and brought us to the station. Then the police finally decided that they had nothing to show to the court. So they wrote the court that they had nothing against us and they requested for our release. So the magistrate released us accordingly. They signed the request from the police.

Where are you now and how are you and your family feeling about all this?

I’m with my parents now in Colombo. It’s nice to be back. My parents and my sister were very very worried. Starting now they are already relieved, but still quite worried about my safety in the future.

What are next moves for you and Father Mahesan? 

It’s too early to say. Father and I have to still discuss with our lawyers and the people who worked very hard to get us released. We will discuss together and decide on next steps. But one thing that is clear for me and for Father is that we remain very committed to the work we are doing. We were doing what we believe in, that we are doing the right thing. Both of us are Catholic, he as a priest and I a lay person, both of us essentially living our Christian faith so I think we will take these as part of our Lenten pilgrimage, these two days, and we will not be deterred by what has passed, and we will continue to work for human rights.

Any message to people who lobbied for your release?

First, my very great appreciation on behalf of me and on behalf of Father Praveen as well. I’m very very sure that our safety while in detention and our release is because of the work that all of our friends in Sri Lanka did, as well as the media, human rights organizations and even some foreign governments speaking on our behalf.

It shows that if ordinary people, organizations and governments want to, they can actually make a difference in terms of providing safety to people who are in danger, ensuring that people who are detained unjustly are released. It is a very good example of what can be achieved if people are committed.

Very sadly, when I and Father Praaveen walked out to be free men, we left behind the many people who have been detained in the very place we were detained, and those men and women have been detained for much longer than us. Those people do not get even one percent of the attention that Fr. Praveen and I got. So I wish there will be more people who will join Father Praveen and I to ensure the safety and freedom of many other people who are unjustly detained.

END