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Sri Lanka Christian leaders say churches divided, like their society


A senior leader in Sri Lanka’s National Christian Council says that even the churches in his conflict-ridden country are ethnically divided, and need "to break down the walls of separation". So, he has outlined one way in which this might begin to happen.

"Is it possible for the church leaders at national level to jointly commission clergy in regions to engage in a meaningful and relevant mission through ecumenical activities?" asked the Rev. Jayasiri Peiris, general secretary of the National Christian Council. He made his suggestion in Colombo on 11 August, when addressing the organization’s annual meeting attended by leaders and delegates from the council’s eight Protestant members churches.

"If the churches are encouraged to break down the walls of separation in their local communities, they can become the life in their neighbourhoods," asserted Peiris, a priest in the (Anglican) Church of Ceylon.

Peiris made his recommendation in the presence of a six-member team from the World Council of Churches that visited Sri Lanka from 4 to 14 August as part of the WCC’s Decade to Overcome Violence programme.

The Rev W. P. Ebenezer Joseph, head of the Methodist Church in Sri Lanka, and a member of the WCC central committee, the global body’s governing body, was unanimously elected NCC president at the assembly. Joseph told Ecumenical News International on 18 August, "We need to take more steps to overcome ethnic feelings, even among Christians."

More than 70 000 people have been killed in the protracted ethnic conflict that has crippled this Indian Ocean island for three decades in a bloody campaign for autonomy by ethnic Tamil rebels against the dominance of the Sinhala community, who are mainly Buddhists.

While ethnic Tamil areas account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka’s 19 million people, the Sinhala-speakers account for 70 percent. Christians, who account for six percent of the population, are the only religious community known to have congregations among the ethnically divided Tamils and Sinhala people, say many Sri Lankans.

Asserting that the church in Sri Lanka is "Colombo centric", Jayasiri Peiris highlighted the need "to be polycentric" and called for "greater interaction between these centres" in the (Tamil majority) north and east, and Sinhala majority South. His call for the joint commissioning of clergy was one way of achieving this, said Peiris.

He further suggested that Sri Lanka’s national church council could "safeguard and promote the mono-centric nature of the church through ecumenical activities in the regions". "An interdenominational clergy will help in a big way to forge great ethnic unity," Peiris told ENI in an interview.

Ethnic divisions among Sri Lankan Christians were illustrated following a workshop that WCC delegates presented before the church council’s national assembly. Some Sinhala delegates criticised the WCC delegation for avoiding words like "terrorism" to describe the Tamil rebels’ campaign.

Ecumenical News International