"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 ...

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