COLOMBO:The Bishop of Mannar Rayappu Joseph has been a strong critic of the government in the past. He was made out to be a supporter of the LTTE both by government leaders and the media. But he was also a strong critic of the LTTE and its violations of human rights, especially forcible recruitment of children and attacks on civilians. At various times there were apprehensions that he was being targeted by one or the other side. This was due to his striking an independent path as is expected of a true religious leader. This was also in the tradition of Joseph Vaz who was canonized by Pope Francis during his visit to Sri Lanka. When he came to Sri Lanka in the 17th century to Fr Vaz did not involve himself in the internal power struggles of the Catholic Church of those times, but stood for the interests of the people he had come to sustain. This has also been the case with Bishop Joseph who has been a strong advocate for the rights of the Tamil people but without losing sight of the interests of the people of the entire country.

Prior to Pope Francis’s arrival in Sri Lanka, there was a concern that the visit of the Pope would be utilized for the political agenda of the then government. Some sections of civil and religious society even urged the postponement of the Holy Father’s visit, on the grounds that its proximity to the elections would unnecessarily involve mixing politics with religion and that the hurly burly of politics would distract the people from the sanctity of the occasion. Bishop Rayappu Joseph speaking on behalf of the Church explained why it did not seek such a postponement. He said, “We cannot dismiss the fears posed by some individuals, that the elections would disrupt the visit. But we had to balance these fears with the understanding of what is good for all the Catholics of Sri Lanka. The Church of Sri Lanka has decided to put aside any differences and stand by the decision that the Holy Father should visit Sri Lanka. The Papal visit is a visual visit of Christ on earth ...”

At the conclusion of the pope’s visit to Sri Lanka, Bishop Joseph put the visit into a positive perspective. He pointed out three blessings that the New Year had brought through a turn of events in which there had been a change of president, the political parties had decided to work together on national issues and the pope had visited the North of Sri Lanka for the first time. While he has been critical of the way Tamils have been treated in Sri Lanka and the absence of positive initiatives of successive governments, on this occasion the bishop was quoted as saying of the pope’s visit to Mannar that “This has given us joy, hope and happiness. The Tamils in the North had been praying for peace for a long time and even after the war had problems.” The hope and optimism in this statement is a reflection of the healing and reconciliation that is already commencing, which is the fourth blessing.

Pope Francis received a warm welcome in Sri Lanka. Those who came from neighbouring countries noted that religious harmony appeared to be high and that while Buddhist temples dot the landscape, the national media gave full coverage to the papal visit. The President Maithripala Sirisena and members of the government met with the pope. At the conclusion of the pope’s visit, Bishop Joseph once again put the visit into a positive perspective of hope. He pointed to three blessings the New Year, 2015, had brought with it. It had brought forth a new president, the country’s political parties had decided to work together and the visit of the pope to Madhu was the first time a pope had visited the North of the country. These positive comments of the bishop are indeed the fourth blessing, and the hope he expressed are indications that the process of healing and reconciliation is already under way.

During his time in Sri Lanka, the pope acknowledged it was not easy to overcome the legacy of injustice, hostility and mistrust left by years of conflict. He said, “It can only be done by overcoming evil with good and by cultivating those virtues which foster reconciliation, solidarity and peace. The process of healing also needs to include the pursuit of truth, not for the sake of opening old wounds, but rather as a necessary means of promoting justice, healing and unity.” The path to these goals, he also said, become clearer “Whenever people listen to one another humbly and openly, their shared values and aspirations become all the more apparent. Diversity is no longer seen as a threat but as a source of enrichment.”

The visit of the pope came at a fortuitous time. The country was only five days after a bitterly contested election that polarized the polity. At stake was the most powerful political position in the country. At stake also was the fate of the most powerful political family that this country has seen in recent times. Many believed that President Mahinda Rajapaksa could not be defeated, and others feared that even if he was defeated he would not go. But when the Pope arrived in Sri Lanka the transfer of power had taken place peacefully and democratically. The former president has denied that he was involved in any undemocratic bid to halt the counting of votes and impose a State of Emergency when defeat loomed. The commitment to democracy that is embedded within the structures of the state, and also in its armed forces, was strong enough to overcome any anti-democratic initiative.

The major failure of the previous government was its unwillingness to transcend the mind-set and institutional mechanisms of the war period. If it was necessary during the war to centralize power to take swift decisions in the interests of winning the war, the end of the war put an end to this need. More certain was the need to have anti terrorist measures in place, including a vast system of intelligence gathering to protect the country. But after the defeat of the LTTE using the security forces as another instrument of governance was not justifiable in the same way as it had once been. The failure to change course and develop a peace-time mode of governance alienated the ethnic minorities, even those sections who had been supportive of the government in the past.

One of the most significant events during the pope’s short three day visit to Sri Lanka was the religious service he conducted at Madhu, which is sacred to both Sinhalese and Tamil Catholics, and where the last battles of the war were fought and which once hosted the largest camp for internally displaced victims of the war. The families of those who had been directly affected by war were provided space near to where pope was, and he went up to them and held them. Speaking there he referred to the war and noted the families present who had “suffered greatly in the long conflict which tore open the heart of Sri Lanka,” and in which “many people, from north and south alike, were killed in the terrible violence and bloodshed.” The religious service in Madhu was to help in the national healing and reconciliation process. The sense of the North is that their losses during the war and the pain they have experienced is not acknowledged by the rest of Sri Lanka.

The Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission appointed by the Sri Lankan government after the end of the war recommended a public commemoration at which all those who lost their lives in the war would be remembered. Although the war ended in 2009 and the LLRC report was published in 2011 the only public commemorations have been by the Sri Lankan government when it remembers the war victory and the sacrifice of the soldiers. The visit of Pope Francis to Sri Lanka in the aftermath of this change of presidency has helped to consolidate a new space and spirit in which the past may be acknowledged, justice obtained and forgiveness given. When he conducted the religious services in Madhu the pope remembered all of those who lost their lives and all who were victims of the war. He took a first step to the hearts of the Tamil people who have been feeling isolated. After the Pope’s visit the government and the larger society will have to take the second and third steps.