Sri Lankan Catholics have criticized President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s attempt to gain political mileage during his recent presence at a popular Marian feast in the island nation.
The president announced several development projects for Tamils to address trauma left by the 26-year-old civil war while attending the feast of Our Lady of Madhu in Mannar diocese on Aug. 15.
“The first citizen of the country should know that political speeches full of electoral promises are not suitable for religious places,” said the Gnanartha Pradeepaya (lamp of wisdom), a Sinhala language Catholic weekly, in an editorial on Aug. 18.
The presidential announcements included an inter-city train service from Tamil-majority Thalaimannar district to the capital Colombo, developing northwestern Mannar as an energy hub and a sugar factory to be established in Vavuniya.
The editorial of the Catholic weekly, which gave vent to the widespread sentiment among Catholics, said the president’s speech was “purely political.”
“Many people are of the opinion that the President’s speech is a violation of the spiritual meditation and prayer life of pilgrims, and it is clear that his political speech should not have been included [in the proceedings],” said the oldest existing Sinhala publication in Sri Lanka.
“We are of the view that politicians should not be allowed to appear or give speeches during religious services in any of our places of worship,” said the weekly.
It further said that “the president should have a sense of where he is, who he is talking to, and what he should and should not say,” in an apparent reference to Wickremesinghe addressing Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Brian Udaigwe, bishops, priests, and nuns at the shrine.
“The President should have made sure not to speak in such a way as to destroy the inner spiritual environment of the devotees who gathered with devotion and prayer at the main Catholic shrine, which was the object of devotion of the entire Sri Lankan people,” Gnanartha Pradeepaya said.
The Coalition of Catholic Lay Organizations also issued a statement of protest.
“We express our opposition to all those who gave the opportunity to the president to make use of the holy altar for his political projects,” it stated.
Thilina Alahakoon, the coalition convener, reminded that Wickremesinghe was not willing to ensure justice for victims of the Easter Sunday bombings, which took place when he was the prime minister, killing 273 and injuring many others.
“We feel that Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government is still covering up the facts regarding the Easter bombings. It is a well-known secret that he is protecting politicians and officials involved to maintain his power, and is undermining, covering up, and slowing down the investigations,” said Alahakoon who was present at the feast.
Antony Neil, a rights activist from Colombo strongly condemned the use of the Madhu shrine as a political platform.
“The church is not a place for politicians to use to deceive innocent people. His entire speech is a political speech,” he said.
Neil said there was nothing wrong with politicians visiting a place of worship, but speaking should be strictly prohibited to maintain purity.