Churches will fail in their mission if violence goes unabated in strife-torn Sri Lanka, a Roman Catholic bishop in the country has warned. "We have to free the world of violence. If we do not succeed in doing this, we have failed," Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar, in the north-west of Sri Lanka, told a visiting delegation from the World Council of Churches.
"I am very happy that the WCC has declared a campaign against violence," said Joseph on 6 August at his office in Mannar. The region, where rebel Tamils have strong support in the island's civil war, is one of the areas worst hit by the conflict in Sri Lanka.
Welcoming an eight-member delegation visiting the Indian Ocean island as part of the world church body's Decade to Overcome Violence programme, the bishop said, "Where there is no truth, there can be no justice and peace. We have to stand up for that," In the past, Sinhala nationalists and the government have criticised the bishop for exposing atrocities committed by the country's security forces on ethnic minority Tamils.
Following the strong protests of Bishop Joseph, the United Nations criticised Sri Lankan forces in January for bombing the huts of displaced Tamil refugees in Padahu Thurai, in the rebel-held Wanni region of the country. Women and children were among the many killed and injured in the attack; government forces claimed they had hit a rebel base.
Aruna Gnanadasan, an Indian theologian who heads the WCC's planning and adminstration division, as a member of the visiting delegation explained that the visit to war-torn Sri Lanka was one of the "living letters" of the overcoming violence project.
"Just as St Paul sent his disciples, we are here on behalf of the WCC community to express solidarity with the suffering people and to learn from them how to overcome violence," Gnanadasan told Ecumenical News International.
Since 1983, more than 70 000 people have been killed during the Tamil rebels' bloody campaign to gain autonomy for ethnic Tamil areas in the north and east of Sri Lanka.
Ethnic Tamils account for 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people, while Sinhala-speaking people, most of whom are Buddhists, make up 70 percent of the population.
The WCC delegation's visit to Sri Lanka has coincided with a continued upsurge in violence, with more than 5000 lives lost since January 2006. The increased violence began after Mahinda Rajapakse won the presidential election with the support of Sinhala nationalist groups, and thus ended a 2002 cease-fire brokered by Norway.
Besides Gnanadasan, the delegation includes church delegates from Ethiopia, Indonesia, Kenya, South Korea and the United States, as well as representatives of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka.
The 4-12 August visit to Sri Lanka includes trips to the troubled ethnic Tamil areas of Mannar, Batticaloa and Jaffna in the north and east of the island. The delegation is to meet church and religious leaders, government officials, and activists from non-governmental organizations and civil rights groups.
Gnanadasan told ENI that, as part of the WCC-sponsored Decade to Overcome Violence, other "living letters" would go to different conflict zones in the world.