Addressing the leaders and some 1,000 followers of Sri Lanka’s four main religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity – at the end of his first day in the country, Pope Francis urged them to “put reconciliation among all Sri Lankans at the heart of every effort to renew society and its institutions.”
He reminded them – but his words can have a more global meaning too – that “for the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war.” He insisted that as religious leaders, “We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.”
He spoke in English at the end of the inter-religious and ecumenical meeting at Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall in Colombo, January 13. Such a meeting is without precedent in this country. John Paul II had wanted to hold such an event during his visit here in 1995, but it was not possible because he had upset Buddhists by comments he made about their religion in his 1994 book, “Crossing the threshold of hope.”
Pope Francis, who was welcomed on his arrival by traditional Kandian dancers and drummers, was the last to speak in this spacious, modern conference hall. He was welcomed by Bishop Perera who praised his “unassuming, not-triumphalistic, simple and humble lifestyle” and told him that this gathering was “unique” in the country’s history. Next, a Buddhist leader chanted a prayer, and a Tamil Hindu gave a blessing and then placed a large orange shawl (known as a ‘Pon Aadai’) on the Pope’s shoulders as a mark of esteem and respect. Francis wore it for the rest of the meeting. After that, a young Muslim leader spoke about Islam and peace, and denounced the misuse of religion for violence as seen in Paris and in Pakistan in recent times, while an Anglican bishop thanked God for this Pope. Finally, the Venerable Vigithasiri Niyangoda Thero, head of a major Buddhist organization, reminded everyone that “the love of a mother towards he child is neither Buddhist nor Christian. It is maternal. In the same way, the values such as love, self-sacrifice, kindness, peace and friendship, or the evils such as hatred, anger, jealousy, and pride do not belong to any special religion. They are values and evils which belong to humanity.” He concluded by thanking Pope Francis “on behalf of the Buddhists in Sri Lanka” and wished him a fruitful visit in this land.
Francis, for his part, thanked all of them for their presence and said he considered it “a grace to be with all of you, men and women of these great religious traditions, who share with us a desire for wisdom, truth and holiness.” In line with the Second Vatican Council, he assured them of the Catholic Church’s “sincere respect for you, your traditions and beliefs” . He had said much the same in Seoul last August, but he felt it important to repeat it again here in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, where over 70 percent of the population are Buddhist – one can see statues of the Buddha everywhere, 13 percent are Hindu, 11 percent Muslim and 7 percent Christian. He said he hoped his visit would “help to encourage and deepen the various forms of interreligious and ecumenical cooperation which have been undertaken in recent years.”
Such positive developments in interreligious and ecumenical relations “take on a particular significance and urgency in Sri Lanka,” he said, because “for too many years the men and women of this country have been victims of civil strife and violence,” by which he meant the 30 years ethnic civil context that brought such suffering to the nation.
“What is needed now is healing and unity, not further conflict and division,” the Pope declared. He described “the fostering of healing and unity” in Sri Lanka as “a noble task which is incumbent upon all who have at heart the good of the nation, and indeed the whole human family.” He expressed the hope that interreligious and ecumenical cooperation “will demonstrate that men and women do not have to forsake their identity, whether ethnic or religious, in order to live in harmony with their brothers and sisters.”
He told them that are so many ways for the followers of the different religions “to carry out this service” and there are “many needs that must be tended to with the healing balm of fraternal solidarity.” He mentioned in particular “the material and spiritual needs of the poor, the destitute, those who yearn for a word of consolation and hope” and the sadness “of the many families who continue to mourn the loss of their loved ones.”
Although he did not mention this, it is well known that not only has the war caused great suffering to many in this island, so too has poverty because one third of the population is living in poverty and surviving on 2 dollars a day (300 Rupees), and there are many suicides too among the young and the old because of economic problems.