In May the Sri Lankan government celebrated the fourth anniversary of its victory over Tamil rebels in the civil war that ravaged the country for a quarter of a century. Yet peace remains unstable as the government has not yet resolved the root causes of the war – bitter tensions between the mainly Buddhist Sinhalese majority and the largely Hindu Tamil minority.
Our partner in Sri Lanka, The Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation (CPBR) reports that 65 places of worship have been attacked since the war ended in 2009. Tensions are heightened by the actions of militant organisations such as the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), an extremist Buddhist group. The BBS are not only attacking institutions, such as mosques and law colleges, but they are also targeting individuals who are trying to build tolerance between the two faiths.
Against this backdrop, the work of CPBR is more important than ever. Since 2003 CPBR has been working to challenge prejudice and mistrust through community and learning activities that bring people of different faiths together. Last year CPBR established two new community centres in the southern provinces of the island. At these centres, 150 young people from different religions have taken part in activities such as language classes (so they can communicate with each other) and organising community-wide religious festival celebrations.
These centres are also used by religious leaders as meeting places to discuss issues that affect their communities. One issue that was discussed at one of the new centres was the shortage of Hindu Kurukkals (part of the Hindu religious clergy) in the south of Sri Lanka. This is because the area is largely populated by low-caste Estate Tamils who are not considered eligible to join the clergy.
Siva, a Brahmin from the east, agreed to train a young Estate Tamil to become a Kurukkal. According to tradition, low-caste Hindus are not permitted to even enter higher-caste houses. Siva disregarded this and took the youth in as if he were his own. He enrolled the boy at the local Tamil school. The school was reluctant to accept him as his educational standard was lower than other students his age but Siva vouched for him and is now personally supervising his education. He is supporting him financially whilst training him to become a Kurukkal.
The tolerance demonstrated by religious leaders like Siva shows how Sri Lanka can move closer to CPBR’s vision of a Sri Lanka “where all ethnic communities, all religious communities can live together happily and accept that this land belongs to all of us.”
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