The Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo, Nicolas Marcus Fernando, has made yet another call for peaceful settlement to the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka.

"Sri Lanka has been destroying itself with its unresolved ethnic problem and unceasing political violence," Archbishop Fernando declared in a February 4 message to mark Sri Lanka's 52nd anniversary. In an interview with Ecumenical News International (ENI) he insisted that it was the political leaders and agitators who were divided by the ethnic conflict, but not the people. He held up the Catholic community as an example of peaceful coexistence.

Since 1983 the nation's politics have been dominated by the conflict between the Sinhala majority—who live mainly in the southern part of the island and account for three-quarters of Sri Lanka's 18 million citizens—and the Tamil minority, based in the north.

In May 1983 the government in Colombo, the capital, declared a state of emergency after serious communal conflict. The state of emergency has been routinely extended to counter the violence by Tamil guerrillas who want a separate Tamil state—known as Eelam—in the northern and eastern provinces.

So far, 50,000 to 150,000 people have reportedly died in fighting between the guerrillas and the Sri Lankan army which is trying to crush the Tamil rebel movement led by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE), also known as Tamil Tigers. The violence also led to the assassination, in a bomb attack, of President Ranasinghe Premadasa in 1993. Archbishop Fernando said that one of the most urgent needs facing Sri Lanka was to "rid this country of the ongoing costly war that is bleeding us to a slow and painful death."

He urged Sri Lankans, and Catholics in particular, to support the efforts of the Sri Lankan president, Chandrika Kumaratunga—who was re-elected last December—for a peaceful end to the conflict.

In her own independence day message, President Kumaratunga called for an end to "all narrow attitudes and differences and all such divisions so that we can achieve that most urgent and necessary goal of peace."

"This is a costly war both in terms of lives—with so many getting killed—and the economy of the nation," Archbishop Fernando told ENI in a telephone interview from Colombo February 11. Sri Lanka would have progressed "like other prosperous Asian countries" but for the conflict, he said, pointing out that key economic sectors such as industry, exports and tourism had all been severely affected.

The president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of Sri Lanka from 1989 to 1995, Archbishop Fernando has headed the Colombo archdiocese that accounts for nearly half of the Christian population of Sri Lanka for the last 22 years.

While the 1.3 million Christians account for 7 percent of Sri Lanka's population, the Colombo diocese alone has over 600,000 Catholics.

Archbishop Fernando suggested to ENI that Sri Lanka's "ethnic divide" was stronger at the level of the political leaders and their parties than among the people themselves.

"The people [Sinhala and Tamil] are living together in peace. They have no animosity. The problem is more with the leadership," Archbishop Fernando said.

In the archdiocese of Colombo, 88 percent of the faithful were Sinhala and the rest were Tamils. "But, in our churches, services are held in Sinhala and Tamil besides English." In fact, he said, Christians "can take pride" that it is the only religious community that encompasses both Tamil and Sinhala citizens.

(By contrast, the majority Buddhists are exclusively Sinhala, while Hindus are Tamil.)

Christians were trying to bring together religious leaders to prepare the way for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, Archbishop Fernando told ENI. "Religions are still important in our country. We are trying to bring together religious leaders to impress upon people to agree to a formula that would ensure peace," said Archbishop Fernando, one of the founding members of the Forum for Inter-religious Dialogue.

Other forum leaders include the secretary general of Amarapura Nikaya—the biggest organization grouping Buddhist monks in Sri Lanka—as well as Hindu and Muslim officials.

The general secretary of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL), which groups Protestant churches, echoed Archbishop Fernando's calls for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. "The churches stand for a peaceful settlement," Ebenezer Joseph, a Methodist pastor, told ENI in a telephone interview from Colombo.

While Catholics constituted nearly 6 percent of the population of Sri Lanka, Joseph said, the eight NCCSL member churches accounted for only one percent of the national population, including 60,000 Anglicans and 30,000 Methodists, Joseph said.

Despite being a minority, "churches have played a positive and active role in relief and rehabilitation work" among people affected by the violence, he said.

The role of churches "in bringing about reconciliation" in local communities between the Tamil and Sinhala populations, he said, had been "widely acknowledged here."

To coincide with the new millennium, church leaders had undertaken a "secret" peace visit to LTTE strongholds in the north to try and bring about an immediate cease-fire.

Copyright © 2000 Ecumenical News International. Used with permission.

Related Elsewhere

For more coverage of the Tamil conflict, see the BBC's news site (or try the BBC's South Asia page).

More articles, resources, and links are available at Yahoo!'s full coverage area on Sri Lanka.