Category Archives: Sri Lanka

Back to Sri Lanka

We travelled back to Sri Lanka in early January to support our friend, the Ven. Keerthi Fernando, at his Consecration and Enthronement as the new Bishop of Kurunegala, on the feast of Epiphany, 6th January.
Also see our Facebook photos, see link to left.

The Consecration was spectacular. Three separate processions, each led by numerous marching bands and troops of traditional Kandyan dancers, started the service. Over 2500 people had gathered, overflowing into tented extension to the church, and a huge open-air screen. For me it was wonderful to reconnect with so many of the faces we had met during our two months here last year. People had travelled from all over the country, Kilinochchi and Jaffna in the north, Galle in the south, to the Up Country area in the middle of the country.

The service’s significance was underlined by the attendance of numerous foreign bishops as well as government dignitaries. But for all huge sense of occasion it has to be remembered that Anglicanism represents a tiny minority faith in Sri Lanka (Footnote: There are about 50,000 Anglicans, out of a population of 22million). Many ordinary Sri Lankans we encountered had no notion of the Anglican Church.

The service demonstrated the strong multifaith relationships that the Anglican church has nurtured in the Buddhist majority country. The very best seats in the proceedings were given to the delegation of Buddhist monks who sat through the whole 4.5 hour service in reclining lounge type chairs in the front of the church. While they took no part in the service, even standing for any part of it, the presence was valued, sitting even in front of the members of Government.

One of the most precious gifts Bishop Keerthi received was a staff from an Orthodox Bishop from the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, a church which traces its self back to the mission of Thomas the Apostle in the 1st century. For Bishop Keerthi, their presence was particularly valuable, a visible reminder of the long tradition of Christianity in the Indian sub continent, which includes Sri Lanka; long pre-dating the arrival of the colonial missionaries.

The Anglican church though small, plays an important part Sri Lanka. With thousands of children educated in the 14 Anglican schools. It is one of the few institutions that is spread geographically throughout the country and attracts members from all strata of society as well as ethnic and language groups. Congregations are drawn from the well-educated Sinhalese urban middle classes, from the deeply isolated Upcountry Tamils, and from the Tamils in the north and east rebuilding their lives in the aftermath of the civil war. Please keep Bishop Keerthi in your prayers has he tackles some of the huge challenges of his new role, not least that his new role has been vacant for the past 2 years.

Good Friday 2017

Today Good Friday, I think of this small poignant memorial to journalists. We came across in Jaffna, with our recent visit to the north. I do not know how many journalists have been killed, or injured, but it is a reminder that only very recently, Sri Lanka was said to be the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a writer.

Many of us reflect today on the death of Christ, and how Jesus continued to speak truth under the threat of violence. Ultimately we witness that love wins through: may that give us the strength and courage to do the same. Thankfully Sri Lanka is nowadays a much more free and open country.

If you want one tragic example from Jaffna, look up the life of life of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama. a tireless campaigner for peace, understanding across the ethnic divide, human rights and feminism. In 1989 she co-authored a book The Broken Palmyra. A few days after its publication, she was shot dead in her home town of Jaffna, while cycling back from work.

Rajani, a Tamil Christian married to a Sinhalese man, was someone who supported and worked for the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) but ultimately became critical of their violent tactics.

In 1989, she wrote: “One day some gun will silence me and it will not be held by an outsider but by the son born in the womb of this very society, from a woman with whom my history is shared.” A few months later she was killed. Rajani did not know then that the violence would continue for another 20 years.

To explain the title of her book, the palmyra palm, Borassus flabellifer, is the traditional emblem of Sri Lanka’s Northern Province, and a symbol of many of the region’s challenges. Travel to the north and east used to be called “going behind the cadjan curtain”. Cadjan is a wicker-like material, made by weaving dried strips of palmyra together. Thus the palmyra palm is synonymous with the Jaffna peninsula. We have witness tens of thousands of palms being planted, a sign of confidence for the future.

The disappeared

Kitnapilai Rasmani and holding photos of her two children both of whom have disappeared, Mullaitivu. Her son was an LTTE cadre, he was injured and taken by the ICRC to hospital. Her son managed to get a letter written by friends (He could not write) sent to her, giving details where he was recovering. Five days after receiving the letter she went to the hospital, but told her son had been moved to another government camp to make way for new casualties. No news after that. Her daughter was at school, but then forcibly recruited by LTTE as a cadre in the closing stages of the war. No news after that.

We have been travelling around the north of Sri Lanka, among the areas that were formerly controlled by the LTTE (the Tamil Tigers). Universally, people express relief and joy that the fighting is over, but there is still much to happen to win the peace.

An issue that some of our Anglican colleagues are actively supporting is the plight of those who desperately seek news of relatives who have been missing since the end of the war. 20,000 people are believed to have “disappeared”, and nearly eight years after war ended, their parents do not know whether they should grieve, or hold on to that glimmer of hope that their loved ones are alive.

Two presidential commissions were set up to inquire into the missing, but a man who has worked with one of the commissions told us: “We failed to get information for a single one of those who had disappeared.” The lack of progress is now leading to protests which are bubbling up all over former LTTE areas. We were accompanied to two such protests in Kilinochchi and Mulaitivu, by local clergy.

The protests take the form of sit-ins beneath simple roadside shelters where photographs of the missing, all young faces, adorn the makeshift walls. The relatives keep a dignified vigil, taking turns to ensure that there is a continuous presence. We heard numerous individual stories. Most disappearances took place at the closing stages of the war. All except one of the former LTTE cadres we heard about voluntarily surrendered themselves into Sri Lankan Army custody, and were not heard from again. A significant number disappeared from hospitals where they were receiving treatment.

People contend that large areas of land remain out of bounds to the public, and that this is where the are secret camps are suspected. This is supported by fleeting film footage from from documentaries, such as that made by Channel 4, that have provided tantalising glimpses of some who have disappeared.

Eight years on, and with a less authoritarian government having been elected two years ago, there are others we have spoken with who doubt the existence of such camps. They highlight that covert arrest and detention has regrettably been a method of enforcement of authority and control in recent decades, and not just in 2009 as the civil war was ending. Forty years on for instance, there are many Sinhalese who are grieving for relatives who were abducted during the JVP uprising in the south, and never returned.

What the relatives want is to be treated with honesty and dignity. After so many years of violence perpetrated by both sides, it is hardly surprising that beneath the light-hearted smiles, huge bitterness and mistrust continue to exist. Could a new solidarity be fostered, between grieving relatives of the disappeared from both Sinhala and Tamil communities, to force a new era of openness from the Government?

If this conflict feels remote to our lives in Britain, creating a creative harmonious community remains an ever-present challenge for all of us. Fundamentally, it can only take place when we treat each with other dignity and respect.

Please keep the ministry work of clergy in these former war torn areas in your prayers, as well as the patient vigil of the relatives of the disappeared.

Sabbatical Update December 2016

My sabbatical will have two foci of interest. One of those, will be to research churches where congregations meet for different types of services just once a month. The other focus will be a long visit to Sri Lanka: that is the subject of this article.

I will be re-establishing contact with a Sri Lankan Anglican priest, Keerthi Fernando, who studied at the University of Kent 15 years ago while I was vicar in Whitstable. During that time, Keerthi regularly led church services with me. He and his wife Arlene also did much with local schools and churches to promote cultural awareness of Sri Lanka. Our families had plenty of fun together on these evenings and at other times, and became good friends. Continue reading “Sabbatical Update December 2016” »