"I lost everything except some books and a few clothes I carried away in a sack. Lots of my friends and my neighbors were killed." Ivor Poobalan, principal of Sri Lanka's Colombo Theological College, is speaking of 1983 riots that kicked a simmering ethnic rivalry between the Buddhist Sinhalese people and mostly Hindu Tamils into full-scale civil war.
"It was my first experience in how insane people can get in a mob. People were pulled out of cars and killed. Buses were burned. A guy in our church saw his mother raped in front of his own eyes. The fact that people maintain any humanness is the grace of God. There was no milk of human kindness at all."
Poobalan is a man with a gentle, seamless face and a melancholy smile. "The church is the only community that holds the various ethnic communities together," he says. During the riots, "Christians were wonderful. They opened their homes to one another. There was no ethnic divide at all." He sighs. "That was very great."
Sri Lanka, a green, tropical island about the size of Ireland located off the southern tip of India, knows ethnic and religious strife like few other places. At independence in 1948, Sri Lanka was an Asian leader, admired for its democratic habits. Today it lags far behind the Asian tigers, despite a high rate of literacy and good health care. Twenty years of civil war have included terrorist bombings, high-level political assassinations, and bloody street massacres.
I arrived in Sri Lanka on the one-year anniversary of the ceasefire. I came halfway around the world in hopes of learning how Christians live in a place with such raw ethnic and religious tensions. For Americans, that reality became pressing on September 11, 2001. In much of the world, such terror is old news. In Indonesia or the Congo warring tribes kill each other for no apparent reason beyond the triumph of one people or religion over another. The old liberal dream that cultural exchange will lead to understanding and then peace seems downright romantic. Sri Lankan Christians know that as well as anyone, since they are the object of continual suspicion and derision. But these very conditions have helped them learn some things that North American believers only haltingly strive to understand.
Monks Against Tigers
My first evening I worshiped in a Methodist church, colonial in its solid stone structure, Western in its order of service, but with a congregation whose skin tones range from deep brown to a Caucasian tan. Men at the service wore shirts and trousers (few ties, and few sarongs); the women divided between dresses and saris. An organ accompanied Wesleyan hymns before Poobalan preached a sermon in English. (The church holds other services in Sinhala and Tamil languages.)
Afterwards I chatted with Duleep Fernando, who heads the Sinhala Methodist Evangelistic Training College. It and its sister Tamil school have helped revive Methodist growth, sending evangelists into villages to plant churches. Duleep spoke charmingly about the challenges evangelists face from militant opponents. I sized him up as a savvy organizer.
Later Poobalan told me that a monument should be erected to Duleep, because of the many people he snatched from murderous mobs in 1983. He also explained that the staid, colonial church I visited served as a kind of ark for the persecuted during those terrible days when Sinhalese mobs rampaged through Colombo, burning Tamil homes and businesses while slaughtering Tamils by the thousand.
"Duleep [who is Sinhalese] was all over Colombo, bundling families into his car with no mind to his own safety," Poobalan said. "When his house was too full to take any more, he asked the church to open as a refuge. There were families in every pew. I slept in the balcony for two weeks."
Statistically, Christians are a small piece of Sri Lanka's puzzle. More than 70 percent of the population is Sinhalese, while 17 percent is Tamil. These two groups form the principal combatants in the civil war; Muslims (8 percent) and Christians (7 percent) mostly observe from the sidelines. Protestants make up only 1 percent of the population, though the last 20 years have seen significant growth among evangelical churches, mainly along Pentecostal lines.
The Sinhalese and Tamils existed in reasonable harmony during most of their history, often occupying separate villages or neighborhoods but worshiping in the same shrines. This mutual tolerance began to break down in the late 1950s, when prime minister Solomon Bandaranaike came to power by appealing to Sinhalese pride. Elected on a wave of excited feeling, backed by a very visible cadre of militant Buddhist monks, he made Sinhala the official language of schools and government. Later governments reserved the majority of university places for Sinhalese students.
Tamils began to feel like second-class citizens, and they reacted strongly. Militant groups such as the Tamil Tigers began to violently oppose the government (and each other) while advocating a separate state for Tamils. Bloody ethnic riots, assassinations, and violent altercations punctuated the years from 1957 on. After the 1983 riots, war broke out.
The Tamil Tigers perfected the tactic of the suicide bomb, assassinating numerous top officials including Rajiv Gandhi, the prime minister of India. Prime ministers and presidents were murdered, sometimes by Sinhalese extremists who thought the government accommodated too many Tamil grievances, sometimes by Tamil separatists. Government soldiers reacted ruthlessly.
In Sri Lanka it is no trick to find people who have suffered because of ethnic warfare. One student whom I will call Bernard was taken to prison in 1998, straight from his pastor-training institute. (Like many others who told me their stories, Bernard didn't want his name mentioned because, though the country is at peace now, war may begin again.) He hailed from Jaffna, a Tiger stronghold, and that was suspicious enough.
Bernard is slight, almost delicate in his appearance. He said his captors beat him and threatened him with execution for two days, then threw him into an 8-by-8-foot room with 40 other men. The room was too crowded to sleep lying down but, "I shared Jesus Christ with many people," he told me in his high, soft voice. "It was a good place to tell about Jesus."
Eventually he was moved to a rehabilitation center, where he found two other born-again believers. At a daily chapel "Hindus were in the middle, the right corner was for Buddhists, Roman Catholics were in the left corner." Bernard's fellowship of three grew as others came to faith. Eventually some of the prisoners complained to the authorities that Bernard's group induced conversions with offers of money or other favors. This is a frequent complaint against Christians in Sri Lanka, that they pursue "unethical conversions."
"The captain called me in and asked me who gave me the authority to lead this group. I said that God gave me the authority. He made me kneel down on the floor, and he beat me.
"He told me to bring all the new believers, and he beat them. That was very hard for me to see. He told them that they could not pray any more. He ordered them to go back to their old religions."
"We were very glad of this, because of Christ," Bernard told me with absolute, deadpan seriousness. "I told the others to go back [to their old places in the chapel], just as the captain had ordered them, but not to worship. 'You know the Truth now,' I told them."
Bernard was released after 16 months and returned immediately to Bible school. Of his time in prison he says, "It was a very useful experience for me. I learned how to communicate with people, how to counsel."
During my ten days in Sri Lanka, I talked to Christians whose homes or offices had been burned, to people thrown in prison and beaten on vague suspicions, to people who had lived through extensive bombing campaigns in the north or who had been subjected to regular midnight inspections and harassments because of their ethnicity. The emotional calm was striking. None of them seemed angry or distressed; nobody had concluded that one side, government or the Tigers, should bear all the blame. The truth is, Christians are not popular with either side.
You can hardly read a daily newspaper in Sri Lanka that fails to assault Christians for their so-called deceitful attempt to undermine the Buddhist character of the country. The virulent rhetoric seems odd to an outsider, since Buddhism is well established and Christians are a small minority.
Nevertheless, Buddhists feel strongly that Christianity is aggressive and threatening, lacking respect for other faiths. When Norwegian diplomats helped facilitate the current ceasefire, some Sri Lankans even argued that their generous intervention was the first step of a Christian conspiracy to send in missionaries.
This atmosphere creates difficult conditions for Christians, particularly those engaged in evangelism. The Sri Lankan constitution guarantees freedom of religion, but it also pledges the state to protect and encourage Buddhism.
"Although they are the majority," says Vinoth Ramachandra, who oversees South Asia for the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), "they have suffered from a minority complex. They feel threatened because they are the guardians of something found only in Sri Lanka."
The focus of complaint is the alleged "unethical conversions," which, critics say, target the poor with gifts of cash or other inducements. The complaint is much broader than that, though. If a mission agency provides food to hungry refugees, and some become Christians, the conversions get the "unethical" label. If a Christian agency helps a village build houses, dig wells, or raise chickens, and some villagers subsequently convert, the agency can be accused of employing deceptive tactics. As a result of official investigations, Christian relief and development organizations have had to distance themselves from the Sri Lankan church.
"At one point, the churches all had quit social programs," says Godfrey Yogarajah, general secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of Asia, "and World Vision quit working with churches. But still they get accused."
Some even charge Christians who preach on heaven and hell—external inducements—with using unethical methods. "I have heard this from very intellectual Buddhists," says Ebenezer Joseph, general secretary of the National Council of Churches. Others complain about prayer for healing, since that too offers tangible benefits to the believer.
The Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka has issued guidelines for church planting. They say evangelism should avoid the visible presence of foreigners, eschew disrespectful comments about other religions, and avoid publicizing special events. Church leaders told me that they encourage evangelists not to use loudspeakers, not to put up signs, and not to let services spill outdoors.
The best evangelists seem to be families who can sustain themselves through a trade or other business; the best strategy seems to be the house church. "When a guy goes into a village and says I'm a pastor," Yogarajah says, "people think someone is putting in money to convert us. If they see someone earning his living, that is part of the community."
But such considerations probably won't mute opposition. As several church leaders told me, Christianity can be a destabilizing element in a village. If a substantial fraction of the village converts, their absence at religious festivals may disturb village solidarity. The temple will miss their contributions.
If religion is part of the glue that holds your nation or ethnicity together, then conversions threaten your national or ethnic self-understanding. Politicians exploit the fears, but they don't create them out of nothing. A secure identity can be particularly fragile in the modern world. Vinoth Ramachandra says, "Conversion is inevitably a political issue in Sri Lanka."
I posed a question to Sam Thevabalasingham, head of Every Home Crusade and publisher of Direction, a popular Christian magazine. Of 100 village churches, I asked, how many experience visible opposition? Thevabalasingham said, "Maybe one."
Anglican bishop Duleep de Chickera told me, "There is a reaction from Buddhists, but the larger picture is positive. I don't think there is room for alarm. We are still an open society."
But Duleep Fernando is worried. "In many villages, it is becoming increasingly difficult to go and work, no matter how carefully. There will be opposition, and this opposition will spread." Ben Manickam, principal of Lanka Bible College, estimated that "out of 100 churches, 50 or 60 would have some kind of harassment." Assemblies of God pastor David Beling said, "It will come to a crisis."
Many church leaders worry over a proposed anti-conversion law, modeled after a law in India's Tamil Nadu state, which would penalize "unethical conversions." The law seems unlikely to pass at this time, but it suggests that the government might restrict evangelism. New churches have found it impossible to register with the government, due to court decisions reasoning that Christianity is offensive to Buddhism.
Quite apart from government pressures, many church leaders expect harassment and persecution to grow. Nonetheless, they clearly intend to carry on evangelizing. Bible colleges are full of students training to go out to villages. Putting the situation into perspective, Ivor Poobalan contrasted Sri Lanka with Great Britain. "If you compare openness to Christianity, there is no comparison. I could sit with anyone on the street in Sri Lanka and he would gladly listen. That's why we are so quick to plant churches. If you go to a village, people come. That's what bothers those who oppose us." As David Beling says, "The trouble is, people are receptive."
God of the Metal Roof
I traveled to southernmost Sri Lanka to meet Lalani Jayasinghe. Ajith Fernando accompanied me, fulfilling a long-delayed promise to preach in Jayasinghe's church. Despite his international reputation as a Bible expositor and author, Ajith (Duleep's brother) has steadfastly remained in Sri Lanka as a local preacher in the Methodist church and director of Youth for Christ, working with very poor people.
The long hours of travel gave me an opportunity to ask Ajith about the alleged "unethical conversions." In response to pressure, Youth for Christ has placed its larger social projects under a separate organization. Ajith said that staff members make sure they are well known in the community, visiting the families of the young people they minister to. Despite such efforts, reaching out to poor people inevitably opens YFC to the charge of offering inducements. Their workers offer friendship, and pray for sick family members. Such actions are bound to influence needy people toward Jesus.
"No one has an honorable conversion," Ajith said. We all come to Jesus with a mixture of motives.
We stopped at an oceanside snack bar. On the beach, a half dozen tiny boys played cricket while warm water from the Indian Ocean washed onto the pristine tropical shore. I described a story told me by Lal Senanayake, director of studies at Lanka Bible College. When his son's high school history class studied Portuguese colonialism, the teacher had Lal's son stand up. "Take a good look at this boy, who is a Christian. That means he is a traitor, just like those in colonial times who betrayed their people to the Portuguese."
Yes, Ajith said, that sort of treatment is common. When special prayers are offered at the full moon, a Christian student will often be deliberately chosen to lead them. When the student refuses, he is punished, sometimes with a beating. However, Ajith said, there is another side to the story. Very often a new Christian begins to do much better in his studies. His good results bring honor to the school, and so the teachers may end up praising him.
Later Ajith told a story about Lalani. She had taken the all-day trip to Colombo for a planning meeting. When asked how things were with her church, she replied, "Wonderful! Praise the Lord!" Later she gave a more detailed report, telling how the local opposition had that week organized a protest march against her church, and then burned the thatch roof.
Stunned by this news, someone in the meeting asked why she said that everything was wonderful. "Obviously," she answered enthusiastically, "since the thatch is gone, God must intend to give us a metal roof!"
A Happy Widow's Might
When night fell, we were still driving along a tropical seascape. The area is not densely populated; we passed through long stretches of darkness. Once a bright envelope of greenish light appeared; in an open-air structure perhaps a hundred women leaned over sewing machines. It was a garment factory, making clothes through the night to be sold through U.S.-owned chains such as Target or The Gap.
Near midnight we reached Lalani's town, finding the church with some difficulty because it has no sign. Lalani welcomed us vivaciously. She is an attractive, motherly woman; she laughed and talked animatedly while showing us a family photo album. It included pictures of her wedding, photos of her husband's body after a gunshot had taken off part of his face, and snapshots of the blood left on their bedroom floor.
There were also photos of the damage done to the church by a cluster of bombs. Lalani gave a running commentary on these and other photos as cheerfully as she would narrate her summer vacation.
Next morning the church filled up with worshipers. It is a large, simple building with benches for several hundred (and with a metal roof). Lalani had put on a white sari, and she led worship with an effortless enthusiasm. I thought she seemed not only strong but also happy—deeply, unconditionally happy.
Over lunch, she told me her story. Her husband, Lionel Jayasinghe, had been a Buddhist monk who converted to Christianity after a tract caught his interest. Eventually he attended Lanka Bible College and joined the Assemblies of God.
"He had a deep desire to come back to the area where he met Christ," she said, "especially when he learned there weren't any Christians in the area."
He married Lalani in 1986. They had a son the following year. They lived in a very simple hut with no plumbing.
A small house church began to rise, but so did opposition. Local monks went from house to house warning against the Christians. Death threats came in the mail, ordering Lionel to leave the community. On Friday, March 25, 1988, he and Lalani came home from visiting. Their 11-month-old son was sleeping in their bedroom. "Look at my little scamp!" Lionel said.
Lalani was holding her son when she heard a gunshot. Lionel came back into the bedroom, covering his face with his hands. Right behind him was a man with a knife, who repeatedly stabbed him. Lalani tried to shelter her son. She heard another gunshot. The intruder disappeared.
"They brought his body home, and I held onto his feet. He had received an award from Lanka Bible College for distinguished students. I prayed, 'I'm not a distinguished person like him, but I'm not going to leave here.'"
Afraid of further violence, her landlord asked her to vacate. When she moved to another small house, people threw stones at it day after day, frightening her son. Letters came telling her she would be killed like her husband unless she left by a certain date. Protests were organized against the church; the roof was burned.
"God became very close to me during that time. I would tell him everything. I said, 'If you want me to die, I'm ready, but I'd prefer not, because I have work to do here. But if I die, I want to write on the wall with my blood, 'Jesus is alive.'"
Church members warned Lalani that her son was in danger, and she finally accepted their judgment: She needed to give up her son. "It was extremely hard," she told me, tears coming to her eyes. "I was very sad. I told Satan, 'Your end is going to be a terrible end!' and then I felt better.
"Actually, my son is doing very well now." She laughed, wiping away tears. "I should give a gift to those who threatened him, because he was struggling in school before he left."
In April 1999, someone planted three bombs on the church property. Two exploded, harming no one but doing substantial damage to the sanctuary construction. "We didn't pursue any suspicions with the police. They would only beat up the suspect, which would bring more resentment." Contributions came in from throughout Sri Lanka and the church was able to complete construction on the new building. Opposition seemed to die out with that.
Lalani now counts 1,200 believers where once there were none. Seven house churches have been started in the area. She told me that the Assemblies of God recently put her in charge of the whole southern region of Sri Lanka. Her vision had been for 150,000 people in and around her town. "Now I'm praying for revival in the whole area!"
One can name plenty of faults in the Sri Lankan church. As a matter of fact, these flaws were on the mind of almost every church leader I met.
But, as Lalani's example shows, this tiny church has much to offer in the world of clashing ethnicities and cultures.
Tim Stafford is senior writer for Christianity Today. The longer version of this article as well as companion articles can be found at www.christianitytoday.com/go/srilanka.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Related articles appearing on our web site today include:
A Man of Peace | While other monks march against peace, this fierce-looking cleric seeks accord.
Being the Leaven | Why only a handful of Sri Lankan Christians wage peace via the difficult political process.
Indigenous and Evangelistic | Isolated from the infusion of foreign missionaries by Sri Lankan laws, the island's church knows that to survive, it must focus on evangelism.
Earlier Christianity Today articles on Sri Lanka include:
Violence Erupts in Sri Lanka as Churches Look to New PM to Bring Peace | The island nation reels from an ethnic conflict which has claimed more than 64,000 lives since 1983 (Dec. 19, 2001)
The Hard-Won Lessons of Terror and Persecution | Overseas Christians reflect on painful experiences (Sept. 26, 2001)
Christians and Buddhists Build Bridges for Peace in Sri Lanka | Religious officials secret meeting with Tamil Tigers draws criticism (Mar. 7, 2001)
Sri Lanka to Investigate Attack on Evangelical Church | Buddhist fervor for tradition and anger at Christian evangelism boils over in church assault (Feb. 28, 2001)
Christians Mediate for Peace | Sri Lanka churches try to reconcile Sinhalese Buddhists and Hindu Tamils. (Apr. 10, 2001)
Sri Lanka's Churches Pray for Peace as War Rages Around Jaffna | Country's Protestants to unify in prayer June 16. (June 5, 2000)
In Sri Lanka's No Man's Land, Churches Provide Some Hope for Refugees | Christians mobilize to help nearly a million left homeless by Tamil conflict (Apr. 18, 2000)
Sri Lanka's People Are Not Divided, Just the Politicians, says Archbishop | Churches call for peaceful end to Tamil fighting (Feb. 28, 2000)
Dispatch From Sri Lanka: Bombs Away | How Western military actions affect the work of the church (June 14, 1999)
Sri Lanka: A Light in Buddha's Shadow | "With no end in sight to the war, we persevere in seeking to be faithful to God." (Nov. 16, 1998)
Dalai Lama, Evangelical Leader Talk | The discussion focused on the persecution of Christians in Sri Lanka by Buddhists (Aug. 10, 1998)
Assemblies of God Church Attacked | There has been a 230 percent increase in anti-Christian incidents on the island nation south of India in the past year (Feb. 9, 1998)
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