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Keeping the faith in Sri Lanka


Last week, Sri Lanka was nearing such a state of anarchy that a former speaker of Parliament, Karu Jayasuriya, called on Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, and Islamic leaders to step forward and “provide the necessary guidance.” The economy had collapsed, leading to mass hunger, long lines for fuel, and blackouts. Protesters controlled much of the capital. Top leaders had fled their homes, leaving a power vacuum.

By Saturday, many religious leaders did step forward to offer advice.

“The country needs freedom and liberation. We can no longer live divided,” said one influential Buddhist monk, Ven. Dr. Omalpe Sobhitha Thero, in a joint press conference with other religious leaders.

“This government was only concerned about securing power ... by dividing people with their ethnicities and religion,” said Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, archbishop of Colombo.

“The vast majority of our people are intelligent, honest and hardworking men and women who have seen their dreams shattered overnight due to no fault of theirs,” stated the leaders of the Anglican Church of Ceylon. “We must seek leadership which is capable of rallying our people.”

These religious figures not only calmed the protests but also backed calls for the resignation of President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, a member of a political dynasty that had long held power by playing off the country’s religious differences.

Now this island nation of nearly 22 million off the tip of India awaits a consensus among political parties to select a new president. In the meantime, Sri Lanka is showing how a country with failed government can fall back on its faith community to find unity and a deeper understanding of self-governance.

In many countries, chaos in central government does not always lead to social disorder. Individuals “devise their own ways of managing problems when the state is unwilling or unable to do so,” writes University of Pittsburgh scholar Jennifer Murtazashvili in the Journal of International Affairs. Places that seem ungoverned are usually self-governing spaces.

The role of religious groups in helping a society through chaos has become a hot topic for research and civic activism. “People of faith and religious organizations frequently are on the frontlines of peace efforts,” finds the United States Institute of Peace, a federally backed think tank.

Sri Lanka has several groups creating networks in villages to increase communication between religious groups. The Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation, for example, encourages people to attend ceremonies or funerals of other faiths. It also invites inner transformation based on common values found across major religions.

One of the group’s mottoes: “Heal Oneself – Heal Others.” Perhaps that is why a leading Sri Lankan politician called for religious “guidance.”


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