Christians in Sri Lanka make up less than 1 percent of their island nation’s population. Yet they have played significant roles in mediating the country’s racial conflicts over the past three decades.

After the 1983 racially motivated exchange of massacres between the Sinhalese, who make up 71 percent of Sri Lanka’s population, and the minority Tamil race, several evangelicals played leading roles in peace and justice efforts. Today Reggie Ebenezer, a pastor and the general secretary of the Lanka Evangelical Alliance Development Service, leads a government effort to get supplies to civilians in northern Sri Lanka, victims of a war being waged by rebel Tamil groups.

Ajith Fernando, national director of Youth for Christ in Sri Lanka, says Christians enjoy such influence because “we are the only group with people from both [Sinhalese and Tamil] races.” Yet Fernando admits racial tension exists even among Christians. “Racism is one of the last things the process of sanctification touches,” he says.

A History Of Racism

Tamil-Sinhalese conflict long predates the violence of 1983. Earlier this century, a disproportionate number of Tamils rose to prominence in society. Beginning in 1956, the Sinhalese-dominated government sought to bring about balance, resulting in discrimination against Tamils.

The current Sri Lankan government admits Tamils have been mistreated. But leaders say Tamils have been unrealistic in demanding change, and have resorted too quickly to terrorism. Estimates of the number of Tamils to have died in the fighting in recent months range from 3,000 to 6,000, according to Fernando. The overwhelming majority, he adds, are civilians.

Forced Conversions

The history of Protestant Christianity in Sri Lanka, known as Ceylon prior to 1972, is likewise an inglorious one. It includes forced conversions to Christianity and the granting of special privileges to Christians. Prior to 1956, many embraced Christianity merely to gain access to good jobs. Many of these returned to Buddhism in the late 1950s, when Buddhism became identified with nationalism. According to Fernando, the Protestant church then became a breeding ground for syncretism and liberalism.

Unlike most of the world, Sri Lanka has defied the trend toward urbanization; some 70 percent of its population is rural. And although only 600 of the 25,000 villages have a Christian presence, Fernando believes Sri Lanka is more receptive to the gospel than at any time in this century. Evangelistic enthusiasm is especially high among the youth.

Despite his optimism, Fernando faults Sri Lanka’s evangelicals for being “ignorant and unconcerned about justice,” and cites the rise of liberation theology in the Third World as “a judgment on the church.” He is concerned about young Christians who are returning to liberation theology “because the evangelical church had nothing to offer them.”

Continued violence has caused an exodus of wealthy Christians, but Fernando believes this could be a blessing because in Sri Lanka the poor have more credibility. To many Sri Lankan Christians, ministry means regularly risking their lives. “What has helped us keep our sanity,” said Fernando, “is the truth of the sovereignty of God. Because God is sovereign, the only thing we have to fear is disobedience.”

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