A Buddhist monk’s challenge to clergy of all religions – Commentary, Hector Welgampola

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe pays respect to Venerable Madoluwave Sobhitha Thero - Ranil Wickremasinghe Facebook Photo.

Sri Lanka Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe pays his last respects to Venerable Madoluwave Sobhitha Thero – Ranil Wickremasinghe Facebook Photo.

“…grassroots-level clergy of all religions should commit themselves to the role Venerable Sobhitha Thero played as mentor and guardian of the people’s conscience. The time has come to take such commitment to apocalyptic fulfillment through an apolitical mass movement…” – Hector Welgampola

2015 was a momentous year in the history of Sri Lanka. It began with a decisive presidential election followed by a significant parliamentary election. The polls led to an unlikely merging of two political teams led by President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe. They were welcomed as implementers of a reform agenda pioneered by a charismatic Buddhist monk– Venerable Madoluwave Sobhitha Thero.

Soon after facilitating such triumph of people power, the king-maker withdrew to his temple, thus providing space and time for the new leaders to implement the program of Good Governance championed by him. However, like émigré who forgot nothing and learned nothing from the French Revolution, many political vermin of all parties lost no time in an eager rush for perks and privileges. While the frustrated prelate was contemplating the next move of his prophetic mission, he fell ill and died, a virtual white martyr in a campaign for social justice.

The new rulers hastened to give a State funeral to the venerable thero whose untimely death is mourned by the entire Nation. Even the Catholic Church held a Nov. 23 memorial in his honor. Eulogizing the prelate’s prophetic self-giving, his close collaborator Father Reid Shelton Fernando reportedly compared the prelate to Prophet Jeremiah. It was an appeal for further pursuit of the prelate’s prophetic commitment of witness to social justice. No doubt a tall order for puny politicians!

The politically dissipated new rulers too have rushed in to recommit to Venerable Sobhitha’s agenda, though emphasis seems to be more on constitutional reform and less on wiping out the endemic cancer of corruption. The Western-style perception of reform as political tinkering has been deep rooted in the psyche of the country’s political establishment. Unfortunately, the momentary dazzle of such political tinsel has often anesthetized the public and distracted their yearning for a moral ethic in politics: a weakness that has riddled the country for centuries.

By coincidence, this year also marks the bicentenary of the political cataclysm of 1815, which has been innocuously recorded as the year when the British completed their capture of then Ceylon. Until recent times, little was spoken of the local political establishment’s connivance in that transfer of power to the colonizers. Much less was highlighted about the polity’s spontaneous protest symbolized by a Buddhist monk courageous enough to rise against the aristocracy’s surrender of a Nation’s self-respect. History records how he pulled down the British flag and re-hoisted the flag of the country’s last independent kingdom.

Venerable Wariyapola Sumangala Thero’s action on behalf of his Nation was the symbolic launch of a people’s political protest that kept struggling in varied forms to survive for over a century. His 1815 protest surfaced and resurfaced in the form of popular riots, rebellions and uprisings in 1818, 1848, 1912 onward. Ultimately, such protests in the public square were hijacked by new rich urban elite seeking respectability of a tame path of constitutional reform to the delight of their colonial masters. 

That contrived process climaxed in the British-style dominion status leading to political independence in 1947. Just as the Nation’s cause of selfhood was nobly pioneered by generations of Buddhist clergy, its blossoming into a popular movement was thwarted by the money-culture- addicted business elite striving to emasculate it into a tool of economic dominance and political control. And from the early years of political independence, the parliamentary system became a forum to entrench family power, and share political spoils based on subtle racist and casteist criteria. That led in no small measure to the uprisings of the post-independence period. We do not need to go down that path again.

This bi-centenary year of the 1815 political upheaval has begun to be marked by still newer waves of constitutional pyrotechnics to divert the Nation’s need for moral reawakening and elimination of corruption at all levels. Political lobbies have proved themselves impotent in fulfilling that momentum perceived by Sobhitha Thero as a prophetic mission. It was part of a grassroots-level spiritual mission nurtured by generations of non-hierarchical Buddhist clergy including more recent plebian-allied prelates such as Venerable Heenatiyana Dhammaloka Thero, Venerable Yakkaduwe Pragnarama Thero and Venerable Siri Seevli Thero.

If that mission of apolitical social engagement is not to be frittered away, grassroots-level clergy of all religions should commit themselves to the role Venerable Sobhitha Thero played as mentor and guardian of the people’s conscience. The time has come to take such commitment to apocalyptic fulfillment through an apolitical mass movement.

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.

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.

Nuns, priests march with protesters against Sri Lanka port project – video

 

Colombo, SRI LANKA – The People’s Movement against the Port City Project, including nuns and priests marched in protest today from the Fort Railway Station to Gall Face Green urging the government to ban the project, Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror reported.

Some nuns stood along the sidewalk holding placards while fellow sisters marched on the road with priests, Buddhist monks in saffron robes, environmental activists, and other protesters. Priests spoke with police officers, but the police stood firm face to face with the nuns and stopped protesters at the World Trade Centre. Some groups continued protesting sitting down.

See photos by Shameera Rajapaksa

Sri Lankans, including government officials, have expressed concern about the environmental impact of the 1.4 billion dollar Chinese-funded ‘Port City’ on reclaimed land next to Colombo harbor.

nation.lk online newspaper quoted Eran Wickramaratne, Deputy Minister of Highways, Higher Education and Investment Promotion at a recent event in Colombo citing issues with of water, transport and sewerage. He also warned of possible water scarcity for the future residents.

Wickramarante reportedly noted that with 300,000 people or half the population of Colombo living in the 500 acres of land of the port city, the present sewerage system of nearly 200 years old would not be able to hold or carry waste from such a population.

“Stop Port City Immediately!” read the streamer carried by marching nuns.

 

 

 

Sri Lanka papal visit itinerary sites readied

The Catholic Church in Sri Lanka has started preparations both in Colombo and in Madhu, two places Pope Francis will visit on his apostolic journey to Asia next year, his recently released itinerary shows.

Priests blessed Galle Face Green last Friday kicking off work on the stage for the altar where the pope will say Mass on Jan. 14, a senior priest told Sri Lanka’s The Sunday Times.

At this five-hectare ocean-side urban park in the heart of the financial and business district of Colombo “The stage will be constructed by personnel of the Sri Lanka Navy. We have planned out…

Read full report

Pope Francis will depart from Rome’s Fiumicino airport on Monday, Jan. 12 at 7pm and will arrive in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital, at 9am Jan. 13. After the welcome ceremony he will meet with the country’s bishops at the archbishop’s residence. He will then pay a courtesy visit to the president of the Republic. The day will conclude with an interreligious meeting at the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall. That convention center was built in  Colombo city in the 1970s as a gift from the People’s Republic of China in memory of the fourth Prime Minister of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) who served from 1956 until he was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in 1959.

On Jan. 14, Wednesday, Pope Francis will canonize Sri Lanka’s first saint Blessed Joseph Vaz during a Mass to be celebrated at 8.30 am at the Galle Face Green. The pope will travel by helicopter to the Shrine of Our Lady of the Rosary in Madhu,  Mannar district, northwest Sri Lanka.

The site is considered as the holiest Catholic shrine on the island and is a well known place of devotion for Catholics belonging to the Tamil and Sinhalese ethnic groups. The church with a 400-year history has been a symbol of unity not just between Tamils and Sinhalese groups who fought in a civil war for more than 25 years until 2009. It has also brought together people of various religions, including Buddhists, Hindus and Protestants. From Madu, Pope Francis will return to Colombo by helicopter.

On the last day of his pilgrimage, Thursday, Jan. 15, the pope will visit the chapel of Our Lady of Lanka in Bolawalana before he departs Sri Lanka by plane, at 9am, for Manila.

Read Pope Francis’ complete itinerary in Sri Lanka

 

 

Interview: Missionary nuns help shorthanded diocese minister to poor Filipino families

Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne, Holy Family of Bordeaux (HFB) directs fishermen's recollection, Bulan, Sorsogon, Philippines. / photo courtesy of HFB

Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne, Holy Family of Bordeaux (HFB) directs fishermen’s recollection, Bulan, Sorsogon, Philippines. / photo courtesy of HFB

Manila – Sr. Bernadette de Silva Wijeyeratne came to the Philippines 23 years ago through the mission program of the Sri Lanka province of the Sisters of the Holy Family of Bordeaux. Sr. De Silva, as neighbors and friends now call her, knew bitter civil war and deep poverty in Sri Lanka. Still, living among poor families in Sorsogon province is full of demands.

She spoke with Global Sisters’ Report in Manila about her experiences among the country’s poorest families in Sorsogon diocese some 186 miles southeast of Manila, and her international institute founded in the early 1800s.

French Fr. Pierre Bienvenu Noailles organized women and men volunteers of all conditions and vocations to proclaim the “good news” by imitating the Holy Family of Nazareth.

Read the full interview with Sr. de Silva

Concern about Pope Francis’ Sri Lanka visit mounts with militant climate vs. religious minorities

Militant actions of an ultra-nationalist group of ethnic Sinhalese Buddhists against minority religious groups in Sri Lanka are raising concern among sectors involved in Pope Francis’ visit to the island country next year, a report from Italy says.

Paolo Affato in an article for Vatican Insider online newspaper revealed growing concern over the papal visit as he discussed recent “disturbance” reportedly created by extremist Buddhist monks with other protesters against a workshop organized by Families of the Disappeared people in the 26-year ethnic Tamil separatist war that ended in 2009. 

Center for Society and Religion, an institution of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate’s (OMI)  Colombo Province hosted the workshop. Organizers invited about 30 families to the Center for a “sharing” with members of civil society groups, NGO and foreign diplomats on the disappearance of their relatives in connection with the war.

A joint statement of embassy officials of France, Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland posted on the UK government website reported that “an organized group including monks…made forced entry into the room where the discussions were taking place, shouting violently.” 

Their country’s representatives were in the  workshop venue with family members who had travelled from the Northern Province where the war with minority Tamils centered. “All those present felt that their security was under threat,” the officials at the meeting reported.

Affato in his article discussed the incident in the context of a “climate of hostility and revenge” fueling anti-Christian propaganda and violence blamed on radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, Buddhist Power Force). For example, days after official announcement of dates of the 2015 papal visit, the group’s leader Galagoda Atthe Gnanasara Thero demanded that the pope during his visit apologize to Buddhists for attrocities committed by Christian colonial rulers of the island.

However, the national movement to protect the Catholic religion in the country days later said the demand for apology is part of a plan to disrupt the papal visit, and listed other features of the alleged scheme.

The Holy See announced July 29 that the Pope would make his apostolic visit to Sri Lanka Jan. 12-15, 2015.

“These radical Buddhist groups – whose actions are fueled by fervent nationalism colored by faith and culture – have been targeting Muslims and also Christian Evangelicals and Pentecostals for some time now,” Affato wrote.

He explained, “These religious (Christian) groups are seen as advocates of a strong religious proselytism. Now, these groups (radical Buddhists) seem to be targeting Catholics as well.”

According to Affato, “This has sparked concern among bishops, civil authorities, the Nunciature of Colombo and other European embassies ahead of the Pope’s visit.” 

His article details how Buddhist extremists oppose Pope’s visit to Sri Lanka 

In their joint statement, the foreign officials declared, “The embassies of France, Germany, Great Britain and Switzerland strongly condemn the disruption,” of the Aug. 4 meeting.

“We strongly urge the government to ensure and respect freedom of assembly and expression in Sri Lanka,” they added. They  also expressed their hope that the government would assure meeting participants from the North of their security during their return travel.

Sri Lanka’s Cabinet spokesman , however, has reportedly accused the Western diplomats of “double standard” citing the foreigners’ condemnation of the protests against the meeting by people equally entitled to  freedom of assembly and speech.

“There is a feeling that one sector of people are being taken care by some interested parties with western interests,” Minister Keheliya Rambukwella is quoted saying.

Father Rohan Silva, Superior of OMI Colombo Province,  explained in a media statement that the meeting was part of the Center’s commitment to promote the values of democracy, defend social justice, peace and equality for all citizens. The Center has also worked to promote dialogue among Sri Lankas and non-Sri Lankans, the priest added.

Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, Dalai Lama, has urged Buddhists in Sri Lanka and Myanmar where they are the majority of the population, to stop violence against Muslim minorities. BBS rejects the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader. 

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Full text of Father Silva’s statement on the Aug. 4 meeting disruption follows:

As the Provincial Superior of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Colombo Province), I wish to express my feelings of deep disappointment and frustration over the deplorable and despicable incident that transpired at the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR), at 281, Deans Road, Colombo 10, on Monday, August 4, 2014.

CSR is the social justice arm of the Oblate religious order and has always championed the cause of the poor and the marginalized, whatever be their race or creed. It has fearlessly raised its voice on behalf of the voiceless victims of injustice during more than 40 years of its existence. CSR’s unwavering concern has always been the liberation of the poor and marginalized people and it always remained open to whatever was good and true irrespective of its source. Its discussion forums on vital issues have always been open to diverse views. Freedom of expression has been one of CSR’s hallmarks. Since its inception, the Centre has been an open forum for all ethnic communities and religions, a haven for opinion makers and academicians, and politicians of all hues to express their views and be heard on the most crucial issues affecting the Nation and her people. It was and continues to be a centre for research and a meeting place for both the powerful and the powerless on equal grounds without fear or favour.

The said incident occurred at a workshop organized by the Families of the Disappeared with the intention of listening to and learning the agonies of those whose loved ones had been the victims of involuntary disappearance irrespective of whether they were from the North or the South. It is also worthy of note that this gathering was reserved for invitees only and a number of foreign diplomats were in attendance at this meeting.

The fact that this meeting had been organized at the CSR is of special significance in this instance. The CSR, founded by the late Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, has earned the respect and recognition of all political parties and all religious denominations as an institution that promoted the values of democracy and for years had stood for the defence of social justice, peace, equality for all citizens in every sphere of life. Even during some of the darkest moments of the Nation’s history, the CSR remained an oasis where a modicum of sanity prevailed.

It is indeed most unfortunate that these time tested values of the CSR were transgressed and its hallowed precincts violated by a group that forced itself into the premises uninvited and instilling fear and intimidation among those participating in a meeting on purely humanitarian grounds. The CSR is an organization that has created democratic space for dialogue among Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans as well and such space has often proved beneficial to generate discussion on social, political and economic issues and clear the air of bias and false rumours that may prove detrimental to society in general and to governments in particular. That democratic space has now being sullied by elements that contribute little to demonstrate to the world that Sri Lanka is a land where kindness and compassion are hallmarks of our national identity. We live in a world where humanitarian concerns transcend national boundaries, hence the presence of non-Sri Lankans should not be construed as external interference.

The CSR premises lie contiguous to a place of worship. Trespassing such sacred space by the use of force and unbecoming and destructive behaviour is simply a violation of the Church’s guaranteed fundamental rights and of those who use those premises for humanitarian and peaceful purposes. The CSR has always held in high esteem all religions and those espousing their values and welcomed all organizations working for humanitarian concerns. In this context, those responsible for the CSR strongly condemn the illegal intrusion into its premises and urge, in no uncertain terms, the law enforcement authorities to bring the law of the land to bear on those who have acted contrary to its tenets, irrespective of their social status.

We also appeal to the leaders of the Church and other peace loving organizations to send out a firm call to the powers that be to bring to a halt the blatant violations of the fundamental and civic rights of the citizens of this country.
Very Rev. Fr. Rohan Silva OMI
Provincial Superior,
Oblates of Mary Immaculate (Colombo Province)

Sri Lanka’s Buddhist-Muslim clashes reveal the evil of politicising religion, Hector Welgampola

In mid-June, Sri Lankan Buddhists observed Poson, the festival marking the arrival of Buddhism from India. At June end, the country’s Muslims began Ramadan, their month-long fasting season. In between these religious observances, some members of the two groups were engaged in violent confrontation.

Long before the country fell under Western rule in 1505, Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese and Tamils had lived in peace with descendants of visiting Arab traders since the 12th century. The pacific lifestyle of the native peoples had offered an oasis for the Islamic traders from the arid climes. The only prior confrontation between Buddhists and Muslim had been in 1915. If those riots led to more deaths and destruction, the magnanimity of naive leaders helped heal inter-ethnic wounds and even pave the way for the country’s freedom struggle against British rule.

Still fresh after the yet-unresolved outcome of the 30-year war in the North, the recent Buddhist-Muslim clashes in the South raise a familiar question once more. Has political freedom equipped Sri Lankans with the moral calibre to forge inter-ethnic unity from the embers of strife? The debate is still open. As yet, much is being said about seemingly sudden provocations that lit the powder keg of ethno-religious attacks and destruction. Some trace it to the harassment of a Buddhist monk by a Saudi-returned Islamic youth. Others blame it on the demagogy of a Norway-visiting Buddhist monk. However, the hate war was more than a random event.

As above allegations infer, the impact of international elements may not be discounted. In recent decades, many local Muslims and non-Muslims migrated to West Asia in search of petrodollars. Trade and tourism drew West Asians to the country. A new power equation emerged, particularly during the 30-year war with Tiger rebels. When money spoke the language of power, rulers tolerated the influx of Wahabism and even jihadism.

While echoes of the Arab spring empowered some local Muslims, the rise of militarism alongside the ethnic war in the North, did not go unnoticed. Some of them found support in the patronage of West Asian powers, even more openly than Tamil Tigers had enjoyed India’s favor under the Gandhis.

Meanwhile, the war as well as post-war victory parades entrenched a war psychosis among some Southern Sinhalese. Instead of extending the hand of peace to fellow citizens of the war-ravaged North, rulers let racism thrive in the guise of patriotism. Extremist lobbies were quick to grasp the message, just as rulers had been to benefit from the war chest of defeated rebels. Opportunism is the refuge of political ambition.

In the absence of a magnanimous patriotic upswell or a Marshal Plan for nation-building, opportunism became an easy path for the establishment’s survival. Momentarily, it tolerated the anti-minorities stance of a few zealots who seemed to capture the momentum of chauvinist Sinhala-Buddhist political groups. Unsurprisingly, their first targets were Evangelical Christian communities. But in the face of international reaction to such arson and plunder, political godfathers changed strategy.

The revised master plan was to kill two birds with one stroke! Ambitious godfathers had watched the collapse of the Norwegian government which once supported the Tamil Tigers. Reportedly, Norway’s new rulers were lobbied to counter their predecessors’ support for the Tigers by backing the Southern ethno-religious surge. It worked. The key Buddhist monk who engaged with Norway became the firebrand of new-born Bodu Bala Sena (BBS, army of Buddhist power). Like India’s Shiv Sena (army of god Shiva) which had attacked Ayodya’s Babri Mosque, BBS led sporadic anti-Islamic campaigns in various parts of the country before the mid-June clash in Southern Sri Lanka.

And now, weeks after that wave of death and destruction, there has been no end to the gimmicks of spin doctors of all political parties seeking to get as much mileage as possible from that disaster. Their ultimate aim is to exploit it to enhance their power base for the elections due in 2015. Goons responsible for the mayhem are blamed or defended with that goal in view. It is not mere politicisation, it is vicious political exploitation. Amid such mean power games, possible economic pressure from 14 Islamic nations adds to the threatened loss of employment to a million locals working there. And instead of getting trapped in such exploitative power play, local or foreign, all religions should rally to rescue people from further abuse. Religious leaders must exit comfort zones of political privilege, and fearlessly champion moral integrity. Otherwise, the future could be far more dismal than during the ethnic conflagration that raged for three decades.

In particular, Christians have a moral duty at a time when the future of the nation is threatened. This season sacred to both Buddhists and Muslims, is also sacred to Christians as the season of Corpus Christi. The festival of fellowship obligates Christians to promote justice, peace and moral uplift, not to connive in exploitative politics. It obligates mutual empowerment with moral integrity – sustenance for the long march of nation-building.

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

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

Cardinal Ranjith: Protect Sri Lanka as one family

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

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

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo, in a press release on recent clashes and riots at Aluthgama, says all those who foster divisive thinking should be punished and all such thoughts of hegemony or separatism should not be encouraged anywhere in their country, a photo story posted on the official website of the Archdiocese of Colombo reported.

The report quotes Cardinal Ranjith’s appeal for protection and preservation of the diversity of the various ethnic and religious groups and for fostering unity.

The cardinal also reportedly called upon government officials to “do their utmost to ensure that discipline, rule of law and harmony exists among all groups. “

 

Read the full statement

Related report

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