After 10 years, Sri Lanka elects new president

Sri Lanka Maithri screen shot Manifesto

Sri Lanka Maithripala Sirisana screen shot of Manifesto from ground

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 

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.


Faith in God for papal visit security in Sri Lanka – priest

Korea - screen grab

Pope Francis in Korea YouTube screen grab.

Sri Lanka’s election commission has set the date of presidential polls on Jan. 8 as a stream of defections between political parties is expected to turn the race into what has been called a Game of Thrones in Al Jazeera’s social network.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s party general secretary Maithripala Sirisena reportedly announced on Friday he would run against the president under the united opposition. More politicians are expected to switch parties today, Monday, Ceylon Today reported in the weekend.

Rajapaksa introduced an amendment to the nation’s Constitution supposedly lifting term limits for the president and allowing himself to run for another presidential term.

The ruling party secretary’s announced plan to run against his president has reportedly led to political unrest and fear that election violence during the papal visit just five days after the polls will be used for a military clampdown, a Sri Lanka source told Catholic In Asia asking not to be named.

“The 1999, 2005 and 2010 presidential elections were followed by 76, 39 and 85 incidents of post election violence. While people fear for the pope’s safety, it is a prestige battle for leaders,” the Sri Lankan political analyst said.

“There is a growing opinion that it would be better if the pope visit the country on the pope’s possible trip for the 2016 Eucharistic Congress in Cebu,” the journalist added.

IEC Cardinals Palma Nuncio NJ Viehland

Four Philippines cardinals pull together to launch 2016 Int’l Eucharistic Congress preparations in Manila / NJ Viehland Photos

Pope Francis is scheduled to arrive in the International airport in Colombo, Sri Lanka on Jan. 13, 2015, Tuesday, for his 3-day apostolic visit to the South Asian country. He is to pay a courtesy visit with President Rajapaksa, lead the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz – Sri Lanka’s first saint – and pray with pilgrims at a popular Marian shrine in Madhu in the country’s north west region.

Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church leaders are relying on “faith in God” and government assurances that the upcoming presidential election will not interfere with the scheduled visit of Pope Francis, a spokesman reportedly told the online news website after the date for the polls was announced.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo has reportedly kept mum on the announcement as he and local Church groups discussed the impact of polls on the papal visit. Earlier reports of impending elections had reportedly moved the cardinal to write to  Rajapaksa asking the president to inform the Church about the date of election and to tell the nation’s leader that it has not been deemed appropriate for the pope to visit any country at times of national elections.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka [Wikimedia commons}

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith of Colombo, Sri Lanka [Wikimedia commons}

Meanwhile this weekend Father Cyril Gamini, cited as spokesman for the papal visit media secretariat when asked about the impact of the polls on the papal visit has been quoted saying: “Nobody knew that the elections will be held close to the Holy Father’s visit. We would have been happy if the elections had been held well before the papal visit.”

Fr. Gamini said, “There is already a security concern and we cannot dismiss that. But we have complete faith and we hope the Government will keep its word.” He said the Church was going ahead with the preparations.

“Nobody can say there will or won’t be pre- or post-poll violence. But…

Read full report Pope’s visit: Church depends on God

On Sunday, a top Buddhist monk campaigning to scrap the executive presidency and return the country to a parliamentary democracy declared support for Sirisena, who is also Sri Lanka’s health secretary, Agence France Presse news agency reported.

Read the full report Opposition secures Buddhist backing for Sri Lanka vote

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