Can Pope Francis bring a message of peace to a violent land?

Op-ed for UCANews

A little more than a month ago, I made an appeal to Pope Francis not to visit Sri Lanka on a planned Apostolic visit that will begin on January 13 — principally on the grounds that a presidential election was not a suitable moment for such a trip.

Election-related violence has intensified since I made that written appeal. On Wednesday, I heard that a person who was shot while erecting a stage for an opposition party rally succumbed to his injuries. Also that day, three colleagues received death threats over the phone.

Earlier this week, someone deposited the severed heads of dogs in front of two of these colleagues’ homes. The wife of disappeared journalist Prageeth Ekneligoda received threats of violence if she did not cancel a vigil to remember his disappearance.

These are just the most recent acts and threats of violence.

Let’s go back three decades. Wednesday marked the 30-year anniversary of the killing of Fr Mary Bastian inside the Vankalei Church premises in front of witnesses. Like many other such victims, his body was never found and nobody has been held accountable for his death.

It is in this present and past context that Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, the archbishop of Colombo, has asked Catholics to have faith in the promises of the two main presidential candidates in Thursday’s election that their supporters will not engage in any violence before or after the elections.

These assurances of a peaceful poll sound hollow to friends and colleagues who are even now suffering intimidation and violence. Indeed, they fear the incumbent, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, will refuse to step down in the event that he loses the election, leading to reprisals against the supporters of his rivals.

Cardinal Ranjith has not condemned this week’s violence and threats, nor has he reached out to any of the victims. And yet, he has been quoted in the local media as saying, “If there is a possible threat of violence or if the existing circumstances at the time point to a violent environment for the papal visit, then we will have to take the necessary steps”.

With all due respect, Cardinal Ranjith, the threats are more than possible. They are real. The environment is already violent.

It is my hope that even at this late hour Pope Francis will forego his visit to Sri Lanka, regardless of who wins the election. Furthermore, it is the hope of many that the dignity and sanctity of life of the Sri Lankan people — central to any post-democratization agenda — will be given at least some consideration alongside the financial and logistical arrangements of those who take credit for inviting the pope to visit Sri Lanka.

Let us assume that the pope will not cancel his visit. How will it be meaningful to Sri Lanka?

Its main focus appears to be the canonization of Blessed Joseph Vaz. I must say that more than 300 years after his death and 20 years after his beatification, I see no reason why we can’t wait a few more months or years.

But if we cannot wait, then it would be worth noting the deeper significance of Vaz’s canonization. First, he was courageous in the face of adversity. Second, he used creativity to overcome the many obstacles put in front of him. Finally, he was profoundly humble.

Sri Lankan Catholics would do well to emulate these three attributes in the midst of violence that has occurred and violence that is imminent. They are essential for bearing Christian witness in the country and particularly in working towards justice and human rights.

Last year, Pope Francis gave us a fresh perspective on canonizations. He was reported to have said that he wanted theologians to study whether those who were killed because of their actions doing God’s work could also be considered martyrs.

“What I would like is that they clarify when there’s a martyrdom for doing the work for the other that Jesus commands”. This was said in the context of Pope Francis “unblocking” and expediting the process for beatification and eventual canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvadore, who had been killed for his outspoken condemnation of the dictatorship and it’s supporters.

“For me Romero is a man of God. There are no doctrinal problems and it is very important that [the beatification] is done quickly,” Pope Francis is reported to have said.

These Papal words are relevant to Sri Lanka, a country where a Catholic priest disappeared in May 2009 for writing an appeal to the then Pope Benedict XVI to save innocent civilians from being massacred. Fr Francis, an elderly Tamil priest who had opted to remain in the war zone with his people, wrote that letter amidst falling shells and bombs, and told Pope Benedict that the government could kill him for writing such a letter.

Sadly, his fear seems to have been fulfilled. Fr Francis was seen by hundreds of people surrendering to the army but was never seen afterwards. Submissions in courts and to commissions of inquiries have yielded nothing. Will Pope Francis remember Fr Francis during his visit to Sri Lanka?

I hope the canonization will be an opportunity to reflect on modern-day Catholic martyrs in Sri Lanka. Another Tamil priest, Fr Jim Brown, disappeared after having been threatened by a naval officer. This was days after he had taken the lead to save many lives and get medical treatment for civilians injured during the fighting in 2006.

Two other Tamil Catholic priests involved in human rights and humanitarian work, Fr Karunaratnam (Fr Killi) and Fr Pakiaranjith, were also killed in 2008 and 2007, respectively. From the 1980s, Sinhalese and Tamil priests who have been at the forefront of raising their voices on behalf of the oppressed and supporting struggles for justice have been killed or disappeared in Sri Lanka.

Government officials have discredited and intimidated Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar for speaking out on human rights violations, and there have been calls for his arrest. He has been subjected to interrogations on at least two occasions. Along with other Catholic clergy and lay persons, many independent journalists and human rights activists have been killed, disappeared, attacked, threatened, intimidated, harassed, restricted and discredited with false allegations.

I have experienced this type of repression personally on many occasions. Last year, a Tamil Catholic priest and I were arrested and detained under terrorism charges when we tried to meet families of those detained, which we consider our Christian duty. We are still subjected to investigations, travel and speaking restrictions, and our phones and bank accounts are being scrutinized.

Christians and Muslims have been under severe attack by those claiming to be Buddhist groups. A Buddhist monk who has publicly stood for freedom of religious minorities and inter-religious harmony has been attacked several times, jailed and forced into hiding. Private and state land has been acquired, often illegally, for military and touristic purposes. A traditional Tamil Catholic village, where the Church also owns land, is now a naval camp.

The military continues to stop or interfere in religious and civil events in the North. Militarization is spreading all over the country, including in education, sports, tourist resorts, airlines, boat services, shops, restaurants and farms.

A major challenge for Pope Francis will be to overcome bureaucratic and ceremonial niceties to reach out to the oppressed, such as families of those disappeared or killed, and to visit political prisoners, those who have been evicted from their lands, tortured and subjected to sexual abuse.

But reaching out to the oppressed does not seem to be the focus for the Colombo Catholic hierarchy organizing the papal visit. Perhaps such matters are considered “political” and not matters that are central to Catholic teachings? Or perhaps what Jesus did during his ministry, and what Pope Francis seeks to emulate — namely, serving the poor and downtrodden — has been forgotten?

The preparation for the visit appears to be spirituality disconnected from socio-political-economic realities and concerns of the poor and the oppressed. The newly opened Catholic Bookshop in Colombo is selling Pope Francis souvenirs, but when I asked to purchase some booklets containing what Pope Francis has been doing and saying, including his encyclicals, I was told that none were available.

On a more hopeful note, during a recent visit to the North I heard about special efforts to ensure the pope has at least some time to interact with people affected by the civil war when he visits the Madhu shrine. However, he will have only one hour in the 48 hours he will spend in the country to see them.

If Pope Francis does arrive as expected on January 13, I wonder what he will say and do. What will he pray for and what will he say to our government officials? How will he show his solidarity with the poor and oppressed? How will he instill hope in a more democratic, just and loving Sri Lanka?

Ruki Fernando as an adviser with the Inform Human Rights Documentation Center.

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