We are excited to share a report from Sri Lanka about a cultural exchange on May 14 of this year—which brought together 350 people from diverse communities throughout the island's Northeast. The event was the latest in a series of efforts Karuna Center has been co-organizing with Sarvodaya Shanti Sena Sansadaya and an interfaith group of grassroots religious leaders. Each of the ethnic/religious groups present—Sinhala Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, Sri Lankan Muslims, and Christians—has been deeply affected by the 26-year Sri Lankan Civil War, but in different ways.
The Sinhala Buddhist village of Karagahawewa is a post-war community in the district of Trincomalee, Sri Lanka—an area that was heavily affected by the 26-year civil war. On three sides of the village there is thick jungle. There are 800 families living there, all Sinhala Buddhists. Although there used to be close connections between the Sinhalese in Karagahawewa and the Tamil people in neighboring communities, this changed completely as the war between Tamil separatist fighters and the Sinhala-led national army escalated. Both Sinhala and Tamil communities were driven from their homes, and the friendly relationships that had existed between them broke down.
by Olivia Dreier, Executive Director
I am writing from Trincomalee, on the Eastern Shore of Sri Lanka, watching gentle waves roll in from the Bay of Bengal and enjoying the warm breezes. It is hard to imagine how devastated this coast was by the 2004 tsunami, not to mention the relentless lashing of 27 years of civil war. While the country is now at peace, the 80 Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, and Christian religious leaders we have worked with for the last 20 months remind me that it will take many more years to heal the psychological and emotional scars of the war and to create a truly just and democratic society.
Nevertheless, at our closing symposium they expressed surprise and pride at the remarkable progress they have made since we began working together in September 2011. They recalled how nervous they were to meet each other in the beginning, afraid of each other’s accusations, of blame for the horrors of the war. They felt stymied by the Tamil/Sinhala language barrier, uncertain of each other’s religious customs, of what would offend. “Now we are friends, almost like family,” reported one Buddhist monk. “It is time to heal the divisions that have caused so much suffering in this country.“ “And we have learned to not allow our religion to box us in,” shared a Hindu priest. “Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.” Given that the war ended with a military victory and that ethnic and religious tensions remain high, the trusting relationships these religious leaders have forged is no small accomplishment.
“Now we see that as religious leaders we have similar values. We are all human beings. The fact that we practice separate faiths and wear different types of religious garments need not separate us.”
The religious leaders also spoke proudly of the over 50 community projects they have implemented in inter-faith teams in their three districts, projects ranging from women’s vocational training, to Tamil, Sinhala, and English language classes to break through the language barrier, to inter-ethnic youth camps, to community work days to jointly repair their places of worship. And during several days of impact interviews with the beneficiaries of these projects, I heard first hand what a difference these projects have made. Villagers from different ethnic and religious communities tell me that after years of mutual suspicion, they are now attending each other’s religious and cultural festivals and even weddings. If they witness trouble brewing, especially among youths, they speak with each other or with the religious leaders to diffuse the problem.
The program has been further strengthened by peacebuilding trainings for 80 young religious leaders who have joined their elders to form district inter-faith councils. These councils are in the process of registering as independent organizations to carry this work into the future.
Not only have the religious leaders reached down into the grassroots, but they have also raised their voices on the national stage. On March 2 our Sri Lankan partner for this project, Sarvodaya organized a national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding at the main convention center in the capital city of Colombo. Over 700 religious leaders from around the country were in attendance. Our group from the Eastern Province shared their joint resolutions for equal rights and for interfaith and interethnic tolerance. The event was headline news on one of Sri Lanka’s major TV news programs. While this program is coming to a close, we will collaborate with Sarvodaya, to find ways to continue to support the district interfaith councils as they carry their work into the future.
Pictures from Sarvodaya's March 2nd's national conference on inter-faith peacebuilding:
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