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19 March 2001

Rising hopes for peace in Sri Lanka
WCC general secretary on pastoral visit

cf. WCC Press Release, PR-01-07, of 8 March 2001

Almost 80,000 dead, many more injured and a nation marked by deep divisions and mistrust between its various ethnic groups - such is the net result of 18 years of armed conflict in Sri Lanka between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

But when Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser visited Sri Lanka from 14-18 March, civil society representatives told the general secretary of the World Council of Churches (WCC) that hopes are rising for peace in their country. Meeting with Raiser in Colombo, the representatives expressed confidence in the outcome of recent Norwegian-brokered peace initiatives - to which the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam have responded with a unilateral ceasefire.

From Colombo Raiser travelled north to Jaffna, where the WCC delegation met with the Roman Catholic Bishop Dr Thomas Soundranayagam as well as with representatives of the Jaffna Peace and Goodwill Committee, in which Christians, Hindus and other senior citizens work jointly on peace-building and reconciliation.

Recaptured by government forces in 1995, Jaffna bears the scars of destruction, and parts of the city and outskirts are still heavily mined. Raiser discussed with church representatives there the role of churches in peace-making and peace-building, and the WCC's belief in close cooperation with people of other faiths in efforts to achieve peace and reconciliation.

Christian proselytism
Meeting in Kandy with a prominent Buddhist leader, the Mahânâyaka of the Asgiriya Chapter, Raiser was told that Christian fundamentalist groups with roots in Korea and the US are trying to convert Buddhists with financial enticements. Christian fundamentalists are a big problem for the domestic churches as well, who fear they are disturbing the fine-tuned relationships between the religions in Sri Lanka.

Christians constitute a small - 8 percent - minority of the island's majority Buddhist (70 percent) and Hindu (15 percent) population. In a context of increased poverty and suffering due to economic globalisation, Christianity and the churches are sometimes seen as agents of neocolonialism; the arrival of new foreign missionaries only tends to confirm these suspicions.

"Aggressive evangelism" provokes extreme responses: people do not necessarily differentiate between different Christian groups. Since the 1980s, 40 churches have been destroyed by extremist Buddhist attacks in Sri Lanka.

Taking up the topic of proselytism when he met later with the faculty of the Roman Catholic National Seminary, and with students at the Protestant Theological College of Lanka, "We must admit that Christianity historically has been a proselytising faith, trying to make converts of 'heathens'," Raiser said. "We now have a deeper understanding of other religions, but we have an inner ambiguity: on the one hand proclaiming the uniqueness of Christ and, on the other, wishing for a true dialogue," he concluded.

Members of the delegation:
Rev. Dr Konrad Raiser, WCC
Dr Marion Best, United Church of Canada
Mr Mathews George Chunakara, WCC
Mr Clement John, WCC
Mr Bernt Jonsson, Mission Covenant Church of Sweden

For more information contact:
the Media Relations Office
tel.: (+41 22) 791 6153 (office);
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The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of churches, now 337, in more than 100 countries in all continents from virtually all Christian traditions. The Roman Catholic Church is not a member church but works cooperatively with the WCC. The highest governing body is the assembly, which meets approximately every seven years. The WCC was formally inaugurated in 1948 in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Its staff is headed by general secretary Konrad Raiser from the Evangelical Church in Germany.