Sri Lankan bishop tries to model peace

Published May 1, 2003

Bishop Kumara Llangasinghe

Bishop Kumara Llangasinghe, of the diocese of Kurunagala in Sri Lanka, is one of a newly emerging breed of Anglican bishop/statesmen: a religious leader, he also acts as intermediary between opposing factions in his country, and walks the talk of peace every day.

In the tradition of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, Bishop Llangasinghe is a peace advocate in a country now enjoying a fragile calm after years of civil strife, killings and bombings.

Bombings of the central bank, oil tanks near Colombo, hospitals and even a precious Hindu shrine disrupted the country’s infrastructure. Transportation routes were cut and different ethnic groups became isolated from one another for more than 20 years. Layered over that are tensions between various ethnic and faith groups, with Christians making up only about 7.5 per cent of the population of 19 million.

In Toronto recently on a visit to the Anglican Church of Canada partnerships department, the bishop, who is also chaplain of Sri Lanka?s National Christian Council, said that the churches keep busy selling the peace.

Sri Lanka has had just one year of peace, he said. Fighting between government forces and Tamil rebels stopped after a memorandum of understanding was signed by the prime minister and the leader of the Tamil Tigers.

While Christians are not directly involved, “they get caught in the crossfire of the fighting,” Bishop Llangasinghe said. Almost a million people have been displaced and many have left the country because of the fighting. The bishop’s diocese (one of two in the Church of Ceylon) is in the centre of the country, and was not as affected by the violence as was Colombo, the other diocese, which rings Kurunagala.

The National Christian Council was integral in the early days of an attempted peace process, but the churches now function in a more supportive role. The council has produced posters and a booklet of Bible readings, testimonials of inter-racial co-operation and suggested activities. The churches also conduct workshops and conferences on the benefits of peace and mutual understanding.

Expectations that peace will last are tentative, he noted. “We are happy as a church to have this time in place for as long as it is possible, even if no final settlement is in the near future,” the bishop said.

“My prayer and hope is that the peace will last,” Bishop Llangasinghe said.

The violence began in 1970 when a militant student body protested government plans to limit access of Tamil students to universities. Under colonialism, said the bishop, the British preferred to work with the minority Tamil people, who had a high literacy rate. Subsequent governments tried to change this and the pendulum then swung in the other direction, eventually leading to ethnic riots and civil war.

There are three ethnic groups in Sri Lanka: Sinhala, Tamil and Islamic. Even though the bishop is Sinhalese, the church “has always been in support of the Tamil cause.” The church has a responsibility, he said, because Christians come from both the Tamil and Sinhalese peoples.

Ecumenism is strong, but the influx of Christian fundamentalist churches has upset the Buddhist majority, said Bishop Llangasinghe. “Now there are a lot of restrictions – if you want to expand your church, we have to get permission from the local Buddhist hierarchy.”

The National Christian Council was planning a meeting with the prime minister to discuss the issue, he added.


Keep on reading

Skip to content