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from issue no. 01/02 - 2005

SRI LANKA. An interview with the Archbishop of Colombo

After the storm

Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, speaks of how his country, among those worst hit by the tsunami, is trying to get back on its feet. The problem of the homeless, of orphans and of equipment for getting back to work. In the background, the positive collaboration between the government and the Tamil in the face of the disaster, and that among the different religions, a collaboration put in jeopardy by Christian fundamentalist groups

by Paolo Mattei

The archbishop of Colombo Oswald Gomis

The archbishop of Colombo Oswald Gomis

When the little wooden statue of Our Lady and Child of Matara, in the south of the Sri Lanka, was swept away, along with many human lives, by the first big wave of last 26 December, someone disconsolately remarked: «Our Mother of Matara is gone for ever». The emeritus bishop of the diocese of Galls, Elmo Noel Perera, informed Oswald Gomis, archbishop of Colombo, of the loss. It is said that the archbishop replied: «Don’t worry, Bishop, Our Lady will come back. She knows the sea well. She’ll swim and return to shore». Three days later, a Sinhalese Buddhist discovered the statue in a banana grove in the back of his garden and handed it over to the administrator of the sanctuary of Our Lady of Victories of Matara. Our Lady was, with respect, taken back to the church.
Monsignor Gomis, even if he doesn’t confirm predicting the return of the statue of Mary, speaks of the episode as a small sign that has rekindled hope in the hearts of the Catholic faithful of Sri Lanka stricken by the tragedy of the tsunami.
Oswald Gomis, born in Dalugama on 12 December 73 years ago, has been Archbishop of Colombo since 2002. Located in the south-west of former Ceylon, the archdiocese of Colombo has more than 5 million inhabitants, for the most part Buddhists. The Catholics amount to about 12% of the population.
Your Excellence, where were you when the tidal wave devastated the coast of your country?
OSWALD GOMIS: The morning of 26 December I was celebrating Christmas mass with the workers of Puttalam, three hours north of Colombo. As soon as I heard what had happened, I rushed to the south of the diocese. I got to Paiyagala, forty kilometers south of Colombo, where five churches had been destroyed and the survivors housed in a Buddhist shrine. The following day I visited the stricken regions in the north of the archdiocese. Then I headed for Negombo, on 28 December to Trincomalee, on the east coast, the 29th to Galle, on the southern coast, one of the zones worse hit by the tsunami, then to Matara... I visited all the camps in the area and I gave financial help where it was necessary.
What is the present situation of the survivors?
GOMIS: It varies according to the area. Those in the southern region of the west Province have mostly returned to their homes or are staying in temporary housing in the hope of building their own when they have the resources. The houses still standing have been cleaned up and made as habitable as possible. So the people still in the camps are relatively few. Their primary needs have been dealt with: during these weeks they’ve received food and shelter and have been encouraged to return to where they lived to gradually start living again. Many of them, being fishermen, need boats and fishing gear so as to start working and provide for themselves.
What is the situation in the south and east of Sri Lanka?
GOMIS: In the south the devastation was worse than in the west province. There again the refugee camps have gradually emptied. Some non-government organizations have begun to reconstruct houses. The government has set up a development program for reconstructing and siting elsewhere towns and roads that were destroyed. The east got the worst of the tsunami. A great many lives were lost. Fifty-eight help centers have been set up which deal with 78,728 people. And that without including the district of Amparai, the worst hit area in the eastern province. Batticaloa and Trincomalee, Kattankudy, Kallady, Dutch Bar and Panchankerni suffered harshly. In Batticaloa alone 23,000 fishermen lived. Almost all the survivors have lost their livelihood.
How many people in the eastern province are actually living in the refugee camps?
GOMIS: At least 65,000. They don’t have homes to go back to. The Church and the non-government organizations are providing them with temporary shelters, but it’s still not sufficient. There was an initial delay in reaching those areas because of a lack of roads and transport. The more pressing thing to do at this moment is rebuilding roads and bridges, almost all destroyed. You have to realize that the eastern coast stretches for about three hundred kilometers.
The little statue of Our Lady of Matara

The little statue of Our Lady of Matara

What has the Church been doing to help the victims, and what initiatives are still going ahead?
GOMIS: The dioceses hit by the tsunami, out of the eleven in Sri Lanka, are Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Trincomalee-Batticaloa. The priests, the religious and the laity immediately set about helping the refugees with food and shelter. They did their best to look for the missing and bury the dead. Many people were initially housed in the churches and the Buddhist temples unharmed by the tsunami. The parishioners from the surrounding areas were quick to bring food and clothing for the needy. Immediately after that initial response, the Caritas sections in each of the diocese got going to organize help and set up the camps. We in our diocese are conducting an aid program to help the victims of our area.
What form does the program take?
GOMIS: It’s organized in three phases. The first – largely carried through already – concerned the immediate evacuation of the survivors from the vicinity of the coast, help to the victims in terms of food and clothing, the setting up of refugees camps and the burial of the dead. The second phase was providing temporary shelter for the survivors. Some young people from the surrounding parishes worked on clearing the rubble from the houses and the areas hit by the tsunami. As a result many refugees have been able to go back and now are living in their own houses, in temporary shelters or with friends. Clothing, bedding and kitchen utensils have been provided. The third phase, going full ahead, is the crucial one. The houses and schools destroyed need to be rebuilt, the fishermen provided with boats and fishing gear and other work tools given to those who lost all their means of subsistence. To deal with that the archdiocese has created an action committee consisting of nine priests. They are organizing the aid operations with the director of “Seth Sarana”, the social action section of the diocesan Caritas. The committee will be responsible for the whole operation under the aegis of the archbishop. Two inspectors have been nominated for auditing the funds.
What’s being done for the other dioceses?
GOMIS: First of all a help fund has been set up, the “Archbishop’s Tidal Wave Relief Fund”, to help all the citizens of Sri Lanka who have suffered from the tsunami. Through the fund we have sent donations already on their way to the other three stricken dioceses.
The worst hit areas in the northern province are Point Pedro, Mullativu and Palai. The bishop of Jaffna, Thomas Savundaranayagam, is working with his priests, with the diocesan HUDEC agency [Human Development Center, ed.] and with the Caritas. A great number of people are still without homes and continue to live in the camps. In effect the biggest problem there is the building of houses. Since most of the population consists of fishermen who live on the beach, the problem is that of rehousing them along the coast but at a reasonable distance from the sea, at least two hundred meters back. But the lack of building land is causing problems for the arrangement. However the Church is about to undertake a program of housing-resettlement and of supplying boats and fishing gear.
As for the long eastern coast, the worst hit, the bishop of Trincomalee-Batticaloa, Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, and his priests are doing remarkable work in so far as they can. As I already mentioned, transport is one of their biggest problems and they still need to reach many areas. The HUDEC, in collaboration with the diocesan authority, is providing food and clothing to the refugees in the camps.
In the southern diocese of Galle, administered pro tempore by Father Terence Liyanage, a group of priests is working very hard to co-ordinate the provision of essential foodstuff and other kinds of primary goods for the refugees. That area, like all of Sri Lanka, has a large Buddhist majority and the Catholic workers are co-ordinating very effectively with the non-Catholic leaders. One of the principal concerns of the Church there is the rebuilding of the only Catholic school of the diocese, which was totally destroyed.
The survivors have also suffered severe psychological trauma...
GOMIS: Yes. We have picked out advisors to help those who are suffering psychologically, also setting up courses to train new assistants. This fact is causing serious concern especially in terms of small children who have lost their parents and loved ones. They have great need of people to console them and comfort them to get over the trauma.
Which are the most pressing problems that the Church has to face in your country?
GOMIS: The rebuilding of homes, the finding of furniture, pots and pans, the providing of boats and fishing gear. We’d like – but I know it’s difficult – these goods to be bought in Sri Lanka because it would save us the cost of transport, would provide work and give an impetus to the prostrate economy of the country.
There are then quite a lot of dilapidated churches and many completely destroyed. In the archdiocese of Colombo four of them are very seriously damaged, in Jaffna 24 churches have suffered serious harm and two have been completely demolished. Since the Catholic faithful are very reliant on their parish communities for spiritual nourishment and sustenance, the immediate repair of those buildings would help them out of the psychological trauma they are currently suffering.
There has been argument in Europe about the financial donations, about transparency in their use. The Italian government has set up a watch committee for that reason.
The dioceses hit by the tsunami, out of the eleven in Sri Lanka, are Colombo, Galle, Jaffna and Trincomalee-Batticaloa. The priests, the religious and the laity immediately set about helping the refugees with food and shelter. They did their best to look for the missing and bury the dead.
GOMIS: People, the funding agencies and the donor countries are very carefully watching the use our government makes of the funds. It’s right then to hope that they will be used properly. The “Archbishop’s Tidal Wave Relief Fund” is administered by a team of priests, and two auditors have been appointed to present the certification of accounts. So the danger of misappropriation is very small. Our Episcopal Conference has also named two bishops, Harold Perera and Kingsley Swampillai, to assist the bishop responsible for the Caritas in Sri Lanka, Raymond Peiris, in managing the aid operations. They’ll work with two accountant-advisors. However, we strongly recommend that all the funds coming from foreign countries be entrusted either to the “Archbishop’s Tidal Wave Relief Fund” or to the national Caritas through the agencies of the Caritas in the countries of origin.
How are relations among the different ethnic groups and the adherents of the various religions in terms of aid and reconstruction?
GOMIS: Collaboration between the Tamil and the Sinhala populations is excellent. As also between the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Tamils. That was evident immediately after the scourge of the tsunami and has been acknowledged even by the Tamil population. Many lives have been saved thanks to that collaboration. In the north, where the political situation constitutes a complex problem, the Church co-ordinated well with the LTTE [“Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eleam”, known as the “Tamil Tigers”, of Hindu religion, ed.] and with the government’s agencies. Overall there is a strong desire for peace among the population. Many believe that this natural disaster has shown that all men are equal. This is a good sign and a hope for the future.
Earlier you mentioned the trauma suffered by children. Have they also suffered abuse?
GOMIS: There has been some abuse, as often unfortunately happens in similar circumstances. But the government has adopted rigid measures to put an end to the phenomenon. Contrary to what one might assume, there are not many children in the orphanages because the government program is of letting them be brought up in the bosom of extended families under close supervision.
Can you describe to us relations between Catholics and the members of the other faiths in Sri Lanka?
GOMIS: Relations had gradually improved and become very cordial up to when, around ten years ago, Christian fundamentalist groups made their appearance here. Their presence began to make for discord and disunity. The ecumenic movement, that had made commendable progress, was also harmed by the phenomenon. The Buddhist community and the Hindus have long protested against efforts at “immoral conversion” carried out by these groups. The discord reached a highpoint during the Christmas period of 2003 with the death of the reverend Soma, a popular Buddhist monk: some Buddhists claim it was a murder caused by the Christians. With the elections round the corner, the matter became a political question and a new party of Buddhist monks, with eight members in Parliament, heavily influenced public opinion through extremist propaganda. The Buddhists don’t easily distinguish between Catholics and the other Christians groupings, and the fact that the Catholics are the largest of the Christian communities has led them to think that all those who show the symbol of the cross and speak of Christ are Catholics. In this way the misdeeds perpetrated by the Christian fundamentalists are attributed to the whole Christian community. The tension has started to die down thanks to the great tolerance and peace-loving attitude of the Catholic community. Since the disaster people have begun to consider others simply as human beings with no division of caste, creed or race. We, as I have already said, consider this a good omen for the future. In fact many religious leaders have appealed to the people to forget all their differences and work to reconstruct the country. But many Christian fundamentalists are accused of wanting to exploit the situation to influence people, and the Buddhists are very watchful about this. A national daily paper, on 23 January last, printed a full-page article with photos and a list of these fundamentalist organizations, under the heading: Mix of tsunami aid and preaching stirs concern. The article said: «A dozen Americans went into a refugee camp, showering desperate parents and traumatized children with gifts, attention and affection. They also silently offered the residents of the camp something else: Jesus». In our opinion this type of activity deeply besmirches our good efforts to help people in the present disaster through charity and genuine sincerity. The Lord has said: «They see our good works and glorify the Lord». But instrumentalizing suffering is not Christianity.
A law against “forced conversion” is being debated in Parliament. What do you think of it?
GOMIS: There’ve already been two attempts to pass a law banning so-called “immoral conversion”. We are against the law, as are the majority of sensible people. The reason is that this sort of law won’t lead to a real solution of the problem. On the contrary, it will create further religious discord and will strike at a fundamental right of people. But we do recognize that a solution should be found to avoid a new crisis among the religious communities in the country, like the one I spoke of earlier.The Congress of Religions, a non-political organization that includes the leaders of the four larger religions in the Sri Lanka, has thoroughly discussed this problem and believes that the creation of an inter-denominational commission appointed by His Excellency the President, with authority to deal with the question, as recommended by the Special Commission for Buddhist Affairs, is to be wished for.
A nun among the ruins of the church in Mullaitivu

A nun among the ruins of the church in Mullaitivu

One last question, Your Excellency. Can you tell us briefly of the statue of Our Lady and Child of Matara?
GOMIS: The small statue of Our Lady of Matara is a miraculous statue very much venerated and very old. It stands no more than fifty centimeters tall. Some people date it to the 16th century and it has already been swept out to sea three times and then returned to the dry land. It is housed in the sanctuary of Our Lady of Victories where a pilgrimage goes every first Sunday of September, joined in by thousands of Catholics. The sanctuary – the presbytery of which will have to be demolished because the tsunami has made it lean dangerously forward – stands just in front of the sea. The first wave, about a meter and twenty centimetres high, hit the beach during the distribution of communion. As it ebbed the wave dragged the statue into the sea. Some of the faithful saw it come gently out of the glass case in which it was kept almost as if Our Lady was going off of her own accord. Then it floated out to sea. The choir of the sanctuary saw and testify to that. Three days later, a Sinhalese Buddhist found it in his garden and handed it over it to the administrator of the sanctuary. So, I think I can say that Our Lady went off only for a brief while, maybe what was needed, to be close to the unlucky people lost at sea. Now she has returned to us. She has returned to give us hope in this moment of suffering.

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