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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2641

Cardinal talks about the pope, politics and the future

Interview: The prelate spoke to Églises d’Asie in late November ahead of an Apostolic visit by Pope Francis to Sri Lanka.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, 67, the archbishop of Colombo since 2009, made a cardinal the following year and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, is a central figure of the Catholic Church in his country.

On November 29, Cardinal Ranjith spoke with Eglises d’Asie about issues related to Pope Francis’ Apostolic visit to the country from January 13-15. Extracts from the interview with him follows ;

Églises d’Asie: What does the pope’s visit mean for the Catholics of Sri Lanka and the country itself?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: I invited Pope Francis to come to Sri Lanka before he even appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s, on the day of his election on March 13, 2013.

His predecessor had gone to visit every continent except Asia. It is often called the continent of the 21st century, home to all the major religions; and so it is important that the pope makes Asia a priority for his Apostolic visits.

On February 8, 2014, I was in Rome for a meeting with members of the Sri Lankan diaspora. It was on this occasion that the invitation was made public. The pope was present at the meeting and he said he hoped to come to our country. Finally, on May 3, during our ad limina visit to Rome, the pope accepted our invitation.

Églises d’Asie: The pope's visit comes at a time when the country is preparing for a presidential election. Do you see any risks of his keeping his scheduled visit?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: As members of the Church, as bishops, we are not involved in politics. Elections are scheduled. What can we do about it?

Today, we the bishops, we are faced with a dilemma: either we request the postponement of the papal visit, or we trust God. You will understand that many of us want to move forward and have this visit take place as scheduled.

Églises d’Asie: The pope will meet with religious leaders. Of these, some Buddhist leaders have been critical about the pope's visit, saying that he had to apologize for the violence against Buddhism by the colonial powers that dominated the country for nearly five centuries. Can you explain?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: The officials to which you refer are more motivated by political action than by religious or even historical thinking. The groups they represent are political, and you cannot generalize about the entire Buddhist community.

Églises d’Asie: What are the proposals that the Church has put forward to support the reconstruction of national unity?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: The conflict (the war on Tamil Tiger Terrorism) that has torn Sri Lanka apart for more than 30 years is not a religious conflict. This conflict is ethnic, if we want to describe things very quickly. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist island and the Tamils came from neighboring India, Islam through traders, Christianity finally through the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English. All these groups have lived in harmony for ages.

During the 450 years of colonial rule, the dominant powers favored minorities. Naturally, when independence came the Sinhalese raised their heads and the Tamils resisted.

But politicians being what they are, since independence they have continued to pursue shortsighted goals and only favor their own interests, including their personal interests. And this works to the ruin of the common good.

As a Church, we can offer as a minority group a proposal to act according to the principles of reciprocity, understanding each other, reconciliation and citizenship. But are the men and women politicians of this country ready to hear this?

Nothing is less certain. The various attempts that have been conducted over the past four decades have not succeeded, and if I wanted to make a diagnosis, I'd say the patient has a headache. We change the pillow, but the damage persists because we do not administer medication. However it would be, we need to make sure that communities are sitting around the table and discussing what could be the new identity of Sri Lanka. Our misfortune is that no politician in this country has the caliber to undertake this and look beyond the protection of his shortsighted interests.

When I was bishop of Ratnapura (1995-2001), my diocese had some 21,000 faithful in the midst of a population of 1.5 million people. As a bishop, I could not say things that would have endangered my people. As Archbishop of Colombo (since 2009) and president of the Episcopal Conference, I have to think about my people. In Colombo, there are six million people. Some 700,000 are Catholics, including 250,000 Tamils. The rest are Sinhalese.

They say I am close to the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but we can also say I was close to his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005). I must be in contact with the country's institutions and those who preside. If I did not act well, the same people who criticize me now would criticize me for being indifferent to the fate of my people.

In this country, you cannot exercise responsibility in the Church without becoming, in a way, a politician yourself. In these days, in an election campaign, the opposition candidate, Mithripala Sirisena, has asked to meet me. I'll see him, of course, but there is no doubt that the incumbent president will immediately ask the same thing. And I will see him, too.

Recently, a group of fishermen from Negombo, a region where Catholics are very numerous, came to see me to bitterly complain about the price of fuel. They asked me to intervene. I went to see the president because this is how things work here. However, is it to address issues of oil prices that I became a priest? No, but if I refused to intervene on the grounds that this is not my field, I might as well tender my resignation to the pope. For the good of my people, I cannot help but be involved in the life of this country.

Églises d’Asie: Catholics in Sri Lanka comprise both Sinhalese and Tamils. Are they as divided among themselves as can be seen elsewhere in the country? What unity is there among the bishops?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: With respect to unity among the bishops, you know that Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar [note: in the Northern Province, Tamil majority] and I conducted several mediation missions between the government and the Tamil Tigers in 1980 and 1990. These joint missions did not stop there. They continued into the last phase of the war, from 2007 to 2009.

In 2007, I was in Rome [note: as Secretary of the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship]. Back in my country for a vacation, I went to see the president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] to tell him that I was willing to go talk to the Tigers in their headquarters in Kilinochchi. Rajapaksa did not think that my initiative could lead to anything but he gave an order to his defense minister at the time, General Sarath Fonseka, to facilitate our transportation to the headquarters of the Tigers. I say 'our transportation’ because, again, I made the trip with Bishop Joseph Rayappu.

Our mediation did not succeed because the leaders of the Tigers did not want to compromise and thought they could win the war. Their mindset, their intellectual functioning, was purely and solely military, without real thought or realistic policy.

In May 2009, you know, the war ended with the LTTE's [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] defeat. But we cannot say that I destroyed the Tamil cause, or that President Rajapaksa has destroyed the Tamil cause. It is the LTTE that, by its intransigence and its radicalism, destroyed the Tamil cause.

Églises d’Asie: As a minority, does the Church need to adopt a particular position vis-à-vis political power?

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: You remember, we are a minority. That's why I have to protect my people — and it is not a question here of Sinhalese versus Tamils. I am the pastor of a diocese which has two-thirds Sinhalese and one-third Tamils. They are all part of my people. But we are a minority.

For several months, Sri Lanka has been the subject of a campaign by the international community, specifically the UN and Western countries, that would require investigation of what happened during the last phase of the war. But in this country, among the Sinhalese majority — and therefore Buddhist — a lot of people think that this inquiry is a campaign by Christians, by Christian countries against Sri Lanka. We, as the Sri Lankan Catholics, we have to live with the Buddhists and we cannot run the risk of being treated as "traitors" by them.

As for the attitude of the international community, I would say that it is counter-productive. The pursuit of this campaign only pushes the Sinhala voters into the arms of those among the Sinhalese who hold extremist views. Whether justified or not, it's not for me to say, but I have to be realistic. And I would add that we should all be. From an electoral point of view, any opinion whatsoever pointing in one direction causes a strengthening of the opposite camp.

Basically, my point is simple: We want to live and thrive in Sri Lanka, and it is the Sri Lankan people — and they alone — who will decide their future. We all know that the Constitution must be changed, that the Tamil grievances are real, that autonomy [in the provinces of the North and East] is the institutional solution towards which we should strive. We know it and we accept it. But it is not for the international community, nor the Sri Lankan diaspora, to dictate what should be our future.

This interview appears courtesy of Églises d’Asie, the information agency of the Paris Foreign Missions. Translated and edited from the original French, it is published here by permission.

- Asian Tribune -

Cardinal Malcom Ranjith, left, with Sri Lankan president Mahinda Rajapaksa
diconary view
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