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Pope Francis And Struggle For Human Rights In Sri Lanka


[Pope Francis washing the feet of  young people, including young women.]

Ruki Fernando -
Pope Francis is set to arrive in Sri Lanka, on 13th January, despite several appeals by Catholics including me, to postpone the visit. He will arrive few days days after we Sri Lankans used our ballot to put a stop to growing dictatorship, despite a dirty election campaign that saw deliberate attacks on opposition, massive abuse of state media and other state resources and variety of harassment sand threats. Top aides of the new President has claimed that former President Rajapakse had even attempted to hold on to power through a military coup when he had seen that he was losing.

It would be important for the Pope not to be carried away too much with election celebrations, which is predominantly Sinhalese feeling. I hope the Pope will be able to address key issues related Tamils and Muslims, which have not been addressed by the President Sirisena’s manifesto. This will include processes towards power sharing and addressing serious violations of human rights and humanitarian laws. President Sirisena’s past conduct and that of some of his allies, which have been very nationalist and pro-war, anti-minority, doesn’t give Tamils and Muslims much confidence and hope even in the new government. Clearly, it was their desperate need to get rid of Rajapakse family rule that led them to vote for Sirisena.

But despite these, it is a moment of Hope in Sri Lanka. It is to this moment of Hope that Pope Francis will come in. All these dark years, it was difficult to find hope in Sri Lanka, but it’s also one thing many of us didn’t let go of.

Hopes of mothers and families of disappeared persons that their loved ones will return home. Hopes of political prisoners and their families, that they will be freed soon. Hopes of communities whose lands have been taken away, that they would be restored. Hopes of independent minded human rights activists, journalists, artists, lawyers, students, academics, that they can express themselves freely without reprisals. Hopes of those who had fled into exile, that they could come back and live and work in safety and reunite with children, wives and parents. Hopes of those tortured, sexually abused for healing and justice. Hopes of asylum seekers who have sort temporary refuge in Sri Lanka, that they will not be deported and arrested and that they will find love and support. Hopes that truth will be acknowledged for the massive human rights violations and that justice and reparation will be ensured.

Hopes for end of family rule, and instead, democratic and participatory governance with independent institutions,

rule of law, independence of judiciary, media freedom, academic freedom, artistic freedom. Hopes for Right to

Information and end to an abusive laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Hope of ending impunity, corruption.

Hopes for an end to militarization. Hopes for more just and non exploitative economic policies. Hopes for more

equitable, just, compassionate (maithree) future.

The Pope could renew and strengthen these hopes by his deeds and his words. In Christian terms, he could bring good news to the poor and renew hopes that all could have life in all it’s fullness. He could be a strength and source of inspiration for those struggling for human rights and keeping alive flames of hope against heavy odds.

The Pope is also an international figure with high moral and political influence. He will come on the heels of the new President promising more cordial relationships with international community. It would be an golden opportunity for the Pope to encourage the Sri Lankan government and the Colombo Church leaders to welcome and cooperate with the UN’s ongoing inquiry towards accountability and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. Tamil clergy in North and East of Sri Lanka have actively supported this process, despite threats and intimidation. The government’s lack of cooperation and hostile attitude has had hindered the effectiveness of the inquiry. The Pope could encourage the Sri Lankan government to work with the UN Human Rights Council members to extend the mandate of the inquiry, invite the team to come to Sri Lanka and ensure a conducive atmosphere for all Sri Lankans who wish to cooperate with it, to do so without fear of reprisals.

For the Colombo Catholics, the highlight of the visit appears to be the Holy Mass at Galle Face Green, where the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz is to take place. It is my hope that this will not be reduced to a ritual and historic event for Catholics, but an occasion to reflect on social-political-economic realities all Sri Lankans are confronted with and related struggles. Reports that Pope Francis has “unblocked” the process towards canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was killed for his outspoken criticism of human rights violations by the then dictatorship in El Salvadore, sends us a positive signal and hope that canonization could be linked to struggles for human rights. This is particularly relevant, given the number of Sri Lankan Catholic Priests and lay Catholics who had been killed or disappeared, detained, threatened, harassed, discredited, as they struggled for human rights and social justice in Sri Lanka in recent years. Canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz will be a good occasion for Sri Lankan Catholics to reflect on their efforts and it would be important for the Pope to pay attention to this prophetic dimension of Catholic faith in Sri Lanka.

For Tamils in the North and East, the highlight is likely to be the Pope’s one hour visit to Madhu. A shrine that has for decades given Tamils shelter and refuge from shelling and bombing, from recruitment of children and as a base to receive humanitarian assistance. The shrine itself was shelled and bombed several times and in the final military offensive of the Army, the miraculous statue of Our Lady of Madhu herself was displaced, joining those displaced she had sheltered. Thousands of people affected by war are expected to join the service in Madhu and I was happy to hear that time has been allocated for the Pope to mingle with these people. There is also possibilities for extension of his stay in Madhu, as his program there is scheduled to finish at 4.30pm and there are no other appointments for the day as per the official schedule.

Except for this one hour stop in Madhu, the Pope is scheduled to spend all of his 48 hour trip in the Archdiocese of Colombo. Other events as per official schedule are welcoming ceremony at the airport, meeting with Catholic Bishops, meeting with the President, an inter-religious meeting and a visit to a new a theological college. There appears to be time in between for few other things.

Pope Francis has been a Pope of positive surprises for the poor and oppressed, whom he had spoken to, embraced, and invited to be with him. He undoubtedly has a heavy pre-arranged schedule in Sri Lanka. But if he will be able to free himself for some time from the ceremonial, diplomatic and ritualistic niceties, below are some possible places he could consider visiting, and people he can consider meeting, calling, remembering and asking about. And offering special Papal prayers and blessings. The list is non exhaustive, and randomly chosen, to give an indicator of people who are looking for hope and some of them have been signs of hope themselves.

Ms. Balendran Jeyakumari – a Tamil woman who has been detained without charges for 10 months, separated from her teenaged daughter. Her son had also disappeared after surrendering to the Army and she had been a prominent campaigner amongst families of disappeared for truth and justice.

Ms. Sandya Ekneligoda – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared cartoonist and journalist from Colombo. She had been campaigning for nearly 5 years with her two teenaged sons, seeking truth and justice. She has also been discredited and intimidated.

Ms. Mauri Inoka – Sinhalese wife of a disappeared person from Anuradhapura, who has been campaigning for truth and justice. Her 14 month old twin children were born after the abduction of their father. She herself has been facing number of threats and has been compelled to be in hiding.

Ms. Rajeswari – Tamil mother of Ganesan Nimalaruban, who was tortured and murdered in custody. She waged a brave legal battle to bring home the body of her son to her simple cadjan and tin sheet house, and also campaigned in courts for truth and justice for her son’s murder.

Dr. Manoharan – a Tamil doctor from Eastern Sri Lanka, who despite threats and financial and material benefits offered, has not given up the quest for truth and justice for his son, who was one of the 5 young students killed on the beach in January 2006.

Ven. Watarekke Vijitha Thero – a Buddhist Monk who has been detained, physically attacked, threatened and discredited and forced into hiding, for defending rights of religious minorities and promoting inter-religious harmony.

Mr. Sunil Jayasekera – Convener of the Free Media Movement, who has been campaigning for media freedoms for decades, and has been threatened number of times. Last year, he took lead role in organizing a press conference to condemn obstruction of a journalists training, braving death threats that he received.

Mr. Rizkan Mohamed – son of Mr. Pattani Razeek, a leader of a NGO based in Puttalam, who was abducted 5 years ago, and body found subsequently. Together with the local Mosque Committee, he had been campaigning for justice for the killing of his father.

Mr. Jayathilaka Bandara – a Sinhalese anti-war singer for several decades, who was beaten up twice as he was engaged in a pro-democracy street campaigns in the lead up to the elections in January 2015.

The “Uthayan” – a Tamil newspaper based on Jaffna, which has been attacked number of times, had employees killed and injured, but which has consistently dared to publish news and opinions critical of the military and the government.

The traditional and resource rich village of Mullikulam, in the diocese of Mannar, which has been occupied by the Navy.

Evangelical Christian churches and Mosques attacked in last couple of years.

Pakistani and other asylum seekers in Sri Lanka, who had faced arrest and deportation and have been denied due process to have their asylum applications processed.

Rev. Fr. Francis Joseph – the Tamil Priest from the diocese of Jaffna, who disappeared after writing a letter to Pope Benedict in May 2009, pleading for help on behalf of civilians being massacred. He expressed fear he would be killed by the Sri Lankan government for writing such a letter. On 18th May 2009, at the end of the war, hundreds of eye witnesses saw him surrender to the Sri Lankan Army. He disappeared afterwards. Along with him, several LTTE leaders also surrendered and disappeared.

Fr. Jim Brown and Mr. Vimalathas – a Tamil Priest and a lay Tamil Catholic from the diocese of Jaffna. Fr. Jim Brown had tried his best to protect civilians from fighting in August 2006, by providing them shelter inside the church. But the church was attacked with many civilians being killed and injured. Fr. Jim Brown had pleaded with the Navy to take the injured to hospital. He was threatened by a Navy officer and disappeared on 20th August 2006, having entered a Navy controlled area with Vimalathas.

Fr. Paikiaranjith – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Mannar. He had been working to assist and protect internally displaced persons (IDPs) in and around Mannar, as the District Coordinator of the well known international church agency Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He was killed in a claymore blast in the Mallavi area on 26 September 2007 when he was carrying humanitarian aid for displaced persons.

Fr. Karunaratnam – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna who had been serving as the Chairman of the North East Secretariat for Human Rights (NESOHR), based in the formerly LTTE controlled area of Killinochchi. He was killed in a claymore attack.

Fr. Sarathjeevan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna. From 2008 he was continuously displaced with his people. According to eyewitnesses, when he approached soldiers for help at the end of the war, he was verbally abused, threatened, pushed and fell. Eventually he managed to get help to transport his orphaned children and other people to safety, but on his way he suffered a heart failure that ended his life.

Fr. Vasanthaseelan – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the diocese of Jaffna. He was the Director of Caritas in Sri Lanka’s war-torn Vanni region in 2009. He injured both of his legs after shells hit the Church in Valaignarmadam in April 2009. One of his legs was amputated. Even in hospital and afterwards, he and those who visited him were subjected to surveillance.

Priests and Sisters who had taken a conscious decision to stay with the people during the bloodiest phase of the war, at grave risk to themselves and were subsequently detained illegally.

Bishop Rayappu Joseph – the Bishop of Mannar, who had played a leading role in highlighting human rights abuses of Tamil people, often becoming a public voice, intervening with government and international community. There have been several calls for his arrest by Government Ministers, he was interrogated twice, often threatened and discredited by Government politicians and state media and stopped from visiting political prisoners.

Fr. Yogeswaran – a Tamil Jesuit Priest heading a human rights centre in Eastern Sri Lanka, who was questioned and intimidated for speaking to the visiting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Fr. C. G Jeyakumar – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Jaffna Diocese who was subjected to a chili powder attack after he spoke about grievances of Tamils to a visiting inter-religious delegation that included Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the Archbishop of Colombo.

Fr. Nehru & Fr. Sebamalei – two young Tamil Catholic Priests from the diocese of Mannar who were summoned for questioning by the Northern Army Commander, due to their work organizing and supporting families of disappeared persons.

Fr. Praveen Mahesan, OMI – a Tamil Catholic Priest, who had been threatened number of times, detained and still subjected to an ongoing investigation, and slapped with indefinite speaking and travel restrictions, due to which he is unable to take up a position as missionary in Kenya.

Fr. Stephen – a Tamil Catholic Priest from the Diocese of Jaffna, who was interrogated and intimidated by the military, for writing a poetry book about his experiences while living amidst and serving the people caught up in the last stage of the war.

Tamil Priests threatened, intimidated and questioned for trying to organize Holy Mass, and other Catholic and inter-religious services for those killed during the war.

Ruki fernando’s articles related to Pope visit to Sri Lanka

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