Cardinal prays for peace, justice and toleration in Sri Lanka
posted on 28 December 2005
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has been forced to reschedule his visit to Batticaloa amidst mounting tension in the region following the murder of an opposition politician at Midnight Mass in the town's Catholic cathedral.
Joseph Pararajasingham, who was 71, was gunned down shortly after taking Communion at St Mary's Church by six men. The killing happenmed in front of Batticaloa’s bishop, who was celebrating the Mass. Church sources in Colombo who have spoken to the bishop said he was “deeply shocked” and “upset” by the killing, the first to occur in a church in Sri Lanka.
The politician’s wife, who was also shot, is critically ill. Seven others were injured. The gunmen escaped.
Batticaloa is the focus of post-tsunami relief and reconstruction work funded by the London-based aid agency Cafod, which has organised the Cardinal's visit.
The killing has led to a three-day “hartal” or stoppage in the town, which is on the east coast of Sri Lanka, which has forced Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor to reshedule his visit.
The motive for the killing of Pararajasingham - a Catholic moderate with the main Tamil nationalist party, known as the 'political wing' of the LTTE, or Tamil Tigers - remains unclear. Both the LTTE and the Government blame each other.
The Archbishop of Westminster is being accompanied in Sri Lanka by Cafod’s director, Chris Bain, his private secretary, Fr Mark O’Toole, and his director for public affairs, Austen Ivereigh.
The Cardinal was very concerned about the killing, which overshadowed his arrival in the Sri Lankan capital at 3am on Boxing Day.
The killing is being seen as more evidence that the peace process is under strain on the island following recent elections which saw national Buddhist parties – which oppose a Tamil homeland in the north – increase their share of power. Skirmishes in the north shortly before Christmas left 13 naval personnel dead.
In an interview for Sri Lankan television on 27 December before lunching with the apostolic nuncio to Sri Lanka, the Cardinal spoke of his concern at the violence. He told MTV:
“I know that everyone here wants peace on this lovely island, and that the Government and the Church and everyone else have that at their heart. My prayers at this time will be for the peace process, that it will grow and develop, and that in good time and in as short a time as possible there will be peace, justice and toleration in Sri Lanka.”
The Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, also made a statement to MTV television, describing the killing as a 'heinous crime'.
'For us, the destruction of any human life is something horrible and we deplore that type of killing,' he said. 'But this being committed in a very sacred place on a very sacred day is certainly abominable. So while we condemn this act we appeal, even at this late hour, to all parties concerned, that we have to respect human life, we have to respect the dignity of human beings and we have to respect the rights of people. It is still not too late for us to sit down and work out a negotiated solution to our ethnic problem.'
Hours after arriving in Colombo at 3 am on Boxing Day, the Cardinal took part in a three-hour house handover ceremony south of the capital, in an area deeply affected by the tsunami.
The housing project at Payagala near Kalutara is overseen by Caritas, the international Catholic aid agency, with contributions from Cafod.
The Cardinal was accompanied by the Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, and the Government’s Minister for Communications.
The group arrived at Payagala, which is on the coast, after a brief stop at a church-run orphanage. There the Cardinal was serenaded by a 10-year-old girl without arms, who sang “Edelweiss” and “We wish you a Merry Christmas”.
Arriving in Payagala the bishops and Chris Bain were garlanded, and processed into the project accompanied by monks from a local Buddhist temple and a dancing band in traditional Sri Lankan costume.
The entourage sat on a podium – the Cardinal alongside a Buddhist monk - to hear a number of speeches in Singhalese from local dignitaries recalling the brutal destruction of the tsunami and the promise of the future. The Christians stood for a minute’s silence while the monks remained sitting – as they do in Sri Lanka as a mark of their importance.
The Cardinal told hundreds of local people gathered for the ceremony:
“I want to thank all the people in Archbishop Gomis’s diocese who have worked for the benefit of those who have suffered so much. I have seen for myself the great and devoted work that has been done and will continue to be done even more in the future. I want to congratulate and thank all of you, people of Sri Lanka, and to say how much I admire your courage and your perseverance and your willingness to rise above the pain that has been caused by the tsunami, and to continue with trust in God and trust in each other. Because one thing is clear to me today, which is that so many people have been involved in this work of hope and reconstruction.”
The ceremony ended with keys being handed to about 30 families who will shortly occupy the brick houses built on wasteland not far from where last Boxing Day the sea delivered its murderous waves.