Sri Lanka: Invigorate inter-religious dialogue and reconciliation

We should hand over to our children and the coming generations a legacy of compassion, loving kindness, love and mutual forgiveness, unity and peace that is the fruit of truth and justice.


by Fr. Augustine Fernando

( February 23, 2017, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) The National Peace Council of Sri Lanka held the National Inter-Religious Symposium at the BMICH on Monday, 20th March. The programme lasted the whole day.

FORMER PRESIDENT & MINISTER GANESHAN

The former President Chandrika Kumaratunge who spoke recalling how a united people succeeded in gaining Independence made a frank, bold and challenging speech encouraging the participants to continue determinedly on the path of reconciliation among all our people in Sri Lanka and not be discouraged by even that monk who causes misunderstanding, confusion and disturbances. She said that religious leaders could do much in bringing about reconciliation and peace to Sri Lanka.

Mano Ganeshan, Minister of National Coexistence, Dialogue and Official Languages spoke of the importance of coexistence and the acceptance of people of different languages, religions and cultures and about being united as one people upholding equality and justice for all and never entrusting power to those who have no respect for these values. He said he is conversant with all three languages spoken in Sri Lanka and that parliamentarians should be at least bilingual. He further said that he communicates the thinking of the Sinhala people in the South to the Tamil people in the North and convey Tamil peoples’ thinking to the people of the South.

Dr. Andrew Sisson, Director of the USAID Mission in Sri Lanka said that USAID was glad to support Inter-Religious Dialogue in Sri Lanka and underlined its importance. He said that the United States of America had a civil war for five years 150 years ago and its negative effects were felt even today 150 years later. He urged those participating in the Symposium to keep sharing their experiences and to exercise pressure on the National Leaders to bring about reconciliation which requires long and hard work.

TRUTH COMMISSION

Besides USAID, MISEREOR and OXFAM have also supported this initiative of the National Peace Conference whose Director, Dr. Jehan Perera said that the government was intent on bringing about reconciliation and that a Truth Commission is to search for the truth of what happened in the past causing suffering to the people. Though in 1988-89 many killings took place, we do not know what exactly happened. The people have a right to know what has happened. The victimized need to speak about what happened to them and they should get answers to their questions and solutions to their problems resulting from those victimizations. There should be investigations about those who disappeared not only under the LTTE but also under the JVP. The suffering that people underwent under the JVP may be smaller in proportion to that of the LTTE, but still many people suffered and many were killed. Yet all those innocent who were adversely affected and suffered immeasurably need to be compensated even though they cannot be compensated adequately.

VERY OLD RELIGIOUS TEACHINGS

We, of different religions, need to reflect sufficiently. Though we are not enemies, consciously or unconsciously some of us do things inimical to others. Though we could speak to one another courteously and without causing hurt, as rational beings, unconsciously or purposefully, our speech, tone of voice and manner of speaking cause hurt and estrangement. These things happen in many instances.

We are a people guilty of self-centred, self-absorbed and partial irrational judgments and unjust verdicts in our public life as well as in our less public relationships. We slander and denigrate our own people; we undermine and jeopardize the future of one another. We bear hatred and nurse grudges and wait for an opportunity to take revenge. We do not openly tell our neighbor of his offence nor fraternally correct him. We live on pretense. We act very foolishly like people walking in the darkness of ignorance. We like to say we are a civilized people with an ancient culture yet act as uncultured people.

Though religious teachings were taught and human beings enlightened on justice and reconciliation more than even 3,000 years ago, we still seem to have not learnt the lessons that lead to wholesome living. We still seem to be groping in the dark.

UNITED AT INDEPENDENCE

At the time of gaining Independence, Sri Lankans may have argued on matters hinging on religious themes, but it did not descend to the level of disparaging and insulting each other.. In fact, we were taught the true meaning of patriotism which begins with a love for all people of the Country…as children of One Mother Lanka, in which people of different identities live side by side, Our landscapes, plants, flowers and scenic beauty are many and varied as expressed also in the National Anthem itself. We do not seem to accept and live according to what is sung in the National Anthem. Some, quite against its spirit even object to it being sung in Tamil.

When these things happen and unpleasant initiatives are taken and prejudiced traditions get entrenched, they obstruct building good relationships and inter religious reconciliation. Not only that. The harassments that children experience take hold of their minds; those responsible are considered by them as unjust and evil persons. Attitudes and actions of such adults darken the minds of children and persist in their lives.

EXAMPLES OF DISCRIMINATION

Some simple day to day examples of what happens concrete and routinely illustrate the many hindrances to reconciliation and peace.

1. Many in government service act with prejudice due to their ignorance of the language and lack of basic humanity and respect towards the ethnicity, culture and religion and the poor economic background of the people. They who are sustained by the peoples’ taxes are insensitive to the injustice, maltreatment and harassment meted out to the people.

2. Government employed public servants who see as criminal offences the exercise of democratic rights by the people and even their views do not see their own shirking of duty causing criminal hurt to people, as a criminal offence.

3. The Department of Education or our educational institution may send a letter to a Catholic teacher in a State school about a study day or a seminar. It reaches the Principal’s office but is never handed over to the teacher. The Teacher is prevented from attending a study-day, getting informed and updated about matters relating to the children he or she teaches due to the Principal acting in a prejudiced, unprincipled and discourteous manner. Is such an unprofessional person fit to be a Principal?

4. Catholic and Christian students in State schools face discrimination by non Christian Teachers and Principals. They seem to be uninformed or incorrigibly prejudiced. They do not seem to have been trained or acquired the professional competence for the school environment in which they are to act professionally and not cause discrimination and thus national disharmony. They should know the norms of undiscriminating discipline. Their attitudes should not go counter to their professional standing. Teachers, just like other professionals need moral sensitivity to be considered competent teachers.

5. A teacher of history or civilization gives a lesson to a class. And very authoritatively and seemingly infallibly teaches that Christianity and Christians have destroyed and are destroying the civilization of this Country. And thus plants obnoxious ideas in the impressionable minds of children. The teacher is completely ignorant of the fact that the Modern Teaching and university Tradition in the world and in Sri Lanka today is from Christian roots.

6. Teachers who are not Christian, who have only a superficial knowledge of the Bible, refer to the Bible and distort and misinterpret it and create unnecessary problems for Christian children and misinform other children. Thereby the teacher who should enlighten leads all the children astray.

7. The Catholic and Christian vested schools now have Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim Principals who do not know and do want to know the Act by which the schools were so vested, even though we Catholics do not agree with all that is in that Act. They refuse admission to Catholic and Christian children and are deprived of education in the schools that Catholics have built! Some time back, even St. Thomas’ College, Kotte was called a Buddhist school. Today, there is a St. Sebastian’s Muslim School, in Colombo and St. Mary’s College, Nawalapitiya, just behind the Church, is turned into a Muslim school. These are contradictory, irritable and unacceptable situations forcibly created. (Mr. Bad-Id Udin Mohammed, a former Principal of Zahira College, Gampola, who became Minister of Education and handled the take-over of denominational schools, saw to it that Muslim interests were promoted though Muslims had not built sufficient schools for Muslim children, by the time of the schools take-over.)

8. There are allocations of funds for the educational purposes, competitions or friendly academic contests of school children in the religious denominations. It so happens that Christians get disproportionately low allocations. In the first place, it is the Christians who first initiated these competitions, which now a government ministry has had reason to patronize and sponsor to others as well.

If we say we are not adversaries, and therefore we can join hands for the common good, let us sincerely cooperate and collaborate and mutually assist one another to come to a better understanding of the best traditions of our religions and enhance the lives of all our followers who are fellow citizens in Sri Lanka. Let us come to a better understanding of the many ways we do injustice to one another. Doing injustice is no part of any religion nor part of declared government policy. But followers of religions and government servants act unjustly. “Do not do unto others what you would not like others to do unto you” was highlighted by Dr. Joe William, President of The National Peace Conference who cited the corresponding statements of that teaching in the various religious traditions.

We should hand over to our children and the coming generations a legacy of compassion, loving kindness, love and mutual forgiveness, unity and peace that is the fruit of truth and justice.

We should rise from the darkness of our ignorance, overcome our indifference, put away our prejudices, including the deep rooted problematic malady of caste prejudice not worthy of intelligent human beings, to transmit to others wholesome relationships among ourselves: relationships help us to see what attitudes we need to drop, what new attitudes we have to adopt that will enhance our identity, self-respect and human dignity. We should strive to accept every person and everything that is true and noble, redeemable, good and pure, honourable, virtuous and worthy of upholding, worthy of preservation and praise wherever it is found.

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