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Eucharist in the Colombo Cathedral presided over by Archbishop Rowan.
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Archbishop - Sri Lanka's "deeply anxious days"
 
CEYLON 070529-1
May 29, 2007

[The Church of Ceylon (E-P) - Ceylon] The people of Sri Lanka are living in "deeply anxious days" and the effect of the island's conflict, especially on children, is long-lasting and devastating, according to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams.

Dr Williams' conclusions came after four days of meetings with church, civic community and faith leaders. His schedule did not permit a visit to the most troubled areas of the island but groups and individuals travelled from the North and the East to meet with him both in Kurunagala and Colombo.

Dr Williams met with a group of internally displaced people who gave first hand accounts of the conflict and of its impact on communities. He heard that life in the camps is verging on the intolerable, with food shortages widespread and with severe disruption to health and education and other provision. Most worrying, he was told, was the constant fear caused by arrests, disappearances and unexplained detentions, especially of children and young people. The Archbishop was shocked to hear of the extent to which children were being forced to act as soldiers, a practice he repeatedly condemned.

In his meeting with internally displaced people as well as those community and faith leaders from the troubled regions, Dr Williams was briefed on human rights abuses which seemed to be routinely practised on a wide scale. These, he was told, were not restricted to one side of the conflict and were not being perpetrated by any single group or grouping. Normal life had been completely suspended and proposals for resettlement were largely unworkable because of the inability to establish any real security for large areas; there was real danger for returning refugees.

Dr Williams used the opportunity of meetings with His Excellency President Mahinda Rajapaksa and senior government leaders and also with the Leader of the opposition, Mr Ranil Wickremasinghe, to raise his concern that a "culture of impunity" had developed in which dissent was suppressed and those who were armed failed to respect the basic rights and dignity of civilians caught up in the conflict - a problem that appeared to be growing with the increased number of armed militias.

The Archbishop urged the political leaders to build on the island's religious heritage in which the different communities had lived in harmony and to combat the feelings of insecurity and alienation felt by Tamil citizens by pursuing policies that reinforced civil society institutions. Whilst acknowledging that government forces would react to attacks, he questioned whether such a military response was justified unless it had the clear aim of enhancing the possibility of dialogue between both sides. The political leaders affirmed the role that the church could play in promoting understanding between the various sides in the conflict.

Speaking at a press conference in the Cathedral in Colombo, Dr Williams summed up the effect of the crisis and stressed his concern that it was the latest generation who were paying the heaviest price of the failure to find a solution:

"There are too many children and young people around who have seen almost nothing except instability and violence and of course the abduction and conscription of children to serve in the militias is one of the most appalling human rights abuses we can see anywhere in the world."

He said that there was increasing belief that any military-only approach to the conflict was doomed to failure; the fact that responses were inevitable was made worse by the fact that there were no other initiatives to bring the two sides together to resolve the conflict:

"The military solution to the problems of the country increasingly appear to be no solution. It is undoubtedly inevitable that what you might call 'surgical' military action against terrorism should take place but we all hope and pray that it will lead not to a desolation, to victory for one and defeat for another, but to an opening of communication, a re-establishment of the possibility for civil societies to develop. Military victory is never an end in itself so long as it does not address underlying causes of tension."

"One of the difficulties is that when you are faced with rising levels of violence, of terrorist activity, there are ways of responding to that which can themselves create future problems - there needs to be a strategy of engagement with voices outside the political process and draw them into a discussion which will guarantee them s sense that they believe that they gave a part and a voice."

During his visit, Dr Williams paid tribute to the role being exercised by the Church of Ceylon and the public stance of its bishops. In his sermon in Kurunagala, he told the congregation that their witness and faithfulness would be vital for the days ahead;

"In this global village it seems very difficult to have any sense that we inhabit together the small territory that is given to us. You know all about that in this island. A small island, divided by bitter enmities, by violence and abuses, so easy to say 'the future must be ours and only ours, and not for them. The future must be for us and not for the others.'

"In this small island the churches of Christ and the other communities of faith continue to witness to a hope that is greater than that, to the hope that the communities of this island will be able to say 'without you I can do nothing...' that the communities of this island will be able to look at one another in hope and not in fear."

In Colombo he told the cathedral congregation made up of of clergy (including some who had travelled from the troubled areas of the north and the east), lay workers, community and diplomatic representatives, and representatives of other faith communities, that Sri Lanka could not sustain conflict:

"In this global village it seems very difficult to have any sense that we inhabit together the small territory that is given to us. You know all about that in this island. A small island, divided by bitter enmities, by violence and abuses, so easy to say 'the future must be ours and only ours, and not for them. The future must be for us and not for the others.' In this small island the churches of Christ and the other communities of faith continue to witness to a hope that is greater than that, to the hope that the communities of this island will be able to say 'without you I can do nothing?' that the communities of this island will be able to look at one another in hope and not in fear."

Fear, caused by such divisions, have terrible consequences and could only be overcome by trust:

"The whole world is a territory which we must learn to live in together, with a shared ownership, a shared responsibility. It is not only this island or my own island that is too small for conflict, the world is too small for conflict and out modern communications and technology should be teaching not how easy it is to spread the messages of fear and paranoia and hatred; it should be teaching us that we can grow into a common language, a common vision, a common responsibility".

Talking and listening across the divides were vital responsibilities which the churches and others should ensure:

"We must keep our bridges in good repair, the bridges for listening and sympathy, hearing the truth from one another, learning what the other's experience is like. And as we do that we shall find, so God promises us, that there is a blessing even from the stranger. We meet this morning in the knowledge and the hope of that communion and community. We commit ourselves afresh to that vision of remaining with one another as Christians, as human beings, as citizens of this country. We commit ourselves to a communion in which we are all nourishing and serving the humanity of each other in which we will not let one another go until God has blessed us".