A great leveler: Sri Lanka's factions deal with the tsunami

The Christian Century, February 8, 2005

By Paul Jeffrey
Batticaloa, Sri Lanka

The Rev. Nadarajah Arulnathan dons a surgical mask to visit his church at Pasikudah, since the rotting bodies tangled in the underbrush can't be removed until the land mines that washed loose from a nearby military base are cleared away. The church sanctuary is battered, but still stands. Not so the dozens of house that once stood around it; they are simply gone, their foundations mute testimony to the vibrant life that once existed here when people ate greasy Sri Lankan hoppers with their fingers and yelled down the street to their children that it was time to come in and get ready for bed. No one yells at anyone now. In the quiet, a dog runs off with a human hand in its mouth.

If Arulnathan, a Methodist pastor, wants to visit members of his flock who survived, they are down the main highway at the Pentecostal Church or just past it at a government-run school. He worked day and night with other local leaders to help organize those shelters and find food, clothes, and medicines for the more than 3,000 people living there. It took several days for assistance from the outside to reach this isolated stretch of villages along the eastern coast of Sri Lanka, yet people weren't waiting around helplessly. Those who had something shared with those who didn't. Most of the dead here and in the nearby city of Batticaloa were buried hastily, Arulnathan and several other religious leaders performing a quick interfaith service at the edge of a mass grave.

Arulnathan lost 19 relatives to the December 26 tsunami, including a sister and her three daughters, but more than a week blurred by until he found the time to visit his family and share the grief. Like many Sri Lankans, he'd been a wounded healer, too busy to mourn, a victim refusing to be give in to despair if for no other reason than there was simply too much to do. "There has been no time for tears," he said.

This island nation has had more than its share of tears in recent years. Ethnic tensions between the majority Sinhalese in the south and the minority Tamils in the north and east have fueled two decades of civil war in which some 65,000 died. A cease fire brokered by Norway took effect in 2002, but peace talks floundered in 2003. In the months leading up to the tsunami many Sri Lankans felt their country was slipping inexorably back towards war.

At the same time, a growing Buddhist nationalist movement began pushing to make Sri Lanka an officially Buddhist state and criminally punish religious conversions. The Buddhist extremists, by all accounts few in number but well connected, especially picked on evangelical Christians, throwing stones and even burning churches, attacking a sector they claimed is backed by wealthy foreigners interested only in further dominating the tropical poor.

And then early that Sunday morning came the great equalizer from the sea. The tsunami hit all ethnic and religious groups alike, and in the waves' immediate wake neighbors helped each other, crossing cultural boundaries with no regard for ethnic or religious identity. Soldiers on both sides of the war helped search for each others' cadavers. Newspapers showed a photo of President Chandrika Kumaratunga in an emergency shelter, smiling and shaking hands with a female Tamil combatant. The Sri Lankan president was blinded in one eye during an 1999 attack by a Tamil fighter, and the photo was even more powerful because it wasn't a staged photo op.

Before long, however, old tensions began to resurface, particularly over access to international aid. And Tamil leaders complained loudly when the government refused to let United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan travel to Tamil-controlled areas during a January 8-9 visit. "What seemed so promising for a few days dissipated quickly, and there's a lot of anger just under the surface," said the Rev. David Palmer, a Methodist pastor from Great Britain serving in the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna. "There's anger about the injustices of war, and there's fear in the north and east that all the tsunami aid will go to the south, because that's what happened with foreign assistance during the war."

Although it can't be completely separated from the ethnic conflict, post-tsunami interreligious reconciliation–especially between Buddhists and Christians–may prove more enduring given the countless experiences of grassroots hospitality lived in the days of dire necessity. As temples and sanctuaries filled up with the homeless, monks and pastors alike found common cause in how to feed and clothe the survivors. Breaking bread–or emergency biscuits–together brought frequent opportunities to set a new tone. The Anglican archdeacon of Galle, the southern city all but wiped out by the waves, said he intentionally took two trucks of food provided by the Protestant network Action by Churches Together (ACT) to a Buddhist temple run by a monk who had led attacks in recent months on an aggressively evangelical Methodist congregation. "I showed him we bear no malice, that the needs of the people are bigger than our petty gripes about each other," said the Rev. Lokendra Abhayaratne.

The opportunity for rapprochement provided by shared shelters began to wane when President Kumaratunga ordered everyone out of the temporary camps. Aid workers were generally supportive of the decision, saying returning people to normalcy is a priority, even if normalcy means going home to a home that isn't there. Moreover, the emergency shelters had proved particularly dangerous for women and children.

Yet the displaced were left in limbo when the government said they couldn't rebuild their homes within 500 meters from the sea. Instead, Kumaratunga told a group of religious leaders on January 4, the government would build three-story apartment complexes a safe distance inland.

The government's posture left many worried about the human impact of displacing thousands of fishing families into urban projects. "The government wants to take so much of the risk out of living that it's taking the life out of living," said Palmer. The Anglican bishop of Colombo, Duleep de Chickera, suggested the churches should mediate between the government and displaced families.

Whatever the outcome of the debate about where families can rebuild, there will be no shortage of aid groups to help in the rebuilding. Colombo has been filled with relief workers in recent days, some who hit the ground running because they had longstanding partnerships with national organizations, and others who sort of stumbled around looking for where to rent a four-wheel drive vehicle so they could bump along the ravaged coastal highway until they found someone upon whom they could unload their donations.

President Kumaratunga asked the churches for specific help in dealing with the large number of orphans left behind when the waves receded. Stories of baby-selling and concerns about increased human trafficking have flourished in recent days, nurtured by the government's own inability to quickly respond; in affected areas government officials are among the victims and government facilities amidst the rubble.

The years of war have given the churches of Sri Lanka lots of practice taking care of victims, including widows and orphans. But it's also their vocation. "It is our calling as the church to look after the poor and needy, especially when they are in real difficulty," said Father Damian Fernando, national director of Caritas Sri Lanka.

The churches have also worked both sides of the armed conflict. Perhaps because they're a religious minority, and not a significant protagonist in the Sinhalese-Tamil dispute, the Protestant and Catholic churches of Sri Lanka have earned considerable respect from their neighbors.

The world's churches thus have valid interlocutors here. The two big church-based relief alliances–Caritas Internationalis for the Catholics and Action by Churches Together for the Protestants and Orthodox–don't have to start from scratch. With savvy and experienced people like Nadarajah Arulnathan on the ground, they'll get good return on their investment in relief and rehabilitation.

Yet the generous response of people around the world to the dramatic suffering of the tsunami shouldn't stop with just supporting the appeals of Caritas and ACT. This is a good moment to cancel the debt of the poorest of the affected countries, as huge debt burdens exacerbate vulnerability to disasters. And faithful citizens around the world must demand that their governments make good on what they've pledged. The record after Hurricane Mitch in Central America and the Bam earthquake in Iran is that pledges of assistance can be as easily broken as made. We must hold the feet of our governments to the fire, making sure they pay what they pledge, and not simply by diverting the money from other needy causes.

Moreover, many governments can come up with more funding. When U.N. Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs Jan Egeland suggested the day after the tsunami that many western nations were too "stingy" with their response, President George W. Bush, in a rush to protest too much, assumed Egeland was attacking just the United States. The shoe certainly fits, though, and there is no good reason why Australia can give several times what the U.S. government is giving to tsunami reconstruction. Many in the world are doing the math, comparing the cost of operations in Iraq with what Bush has chipped in to tsunami recovery.

If aid for relief and rehabilitation isn't going to aggravate Sri Lanka's ethnic and religious problems, it must be delivered by actors motivated solely by the humanitarian imperative, and especially not by a zeal to convert souls. Reports of taking tsunami orphans by the hundreds into Christian compounds for conversion only fuel the campaigns of hardliners who want to do harm to the church.

For the tsunami crisis to retain any chance of bringing peace to Sri Lanka, aid will have to go to both Tamil and Sinhalese communities. Yet the U.S. State Department has the Tamil Tigers on its terrorist list and forbids any U.S. organization from dealing with them. The Tamil Tigers administer a considerable part of the country, and aid delivered only to politically safe areas will inevitably contribute to violence. Again, follow the lead of the Sri Lankan churches; they work both sides of the street.

Christians in the global north were among those who responded generously to the tsunami's victims, and such solidarity will hopefully continue, in most cases with dollars, in some cases with volunteer trips to lend a personal hand in rebuilding. Yet to keep the relationship from being only one-directional, we must not lose sight of what the peoples of south Asia can offer in return. People who live in the increasingly multicultural but seemingly less tolerant United States have a lot to learn from our Christian sisters and brothers in the tsunami zone. They have developed a faith which exalts Christ as Lord while at the same time acknowledges that other religions play a positive role in God's plan for humanity. They have been peacemakers in the middle of brutality, shepherds in the midst of chaos.

COPYRIGHT 2005 The Christian Century Foundation