Colombo, Human Rights, Peace and Conflict

Christmas 2008 in Sri Lanka

Its Christmas day. For a change, I was at home with my family.

Early morning, I went for Christmas Mass in my parish. Many years ago, I had been active in the church, as a student and teacher in the Sunday School, as an Alter Server and in the Young Christian Students Movement. But I had not gone to my parish for a long time, though I have been visiting and staying in churches all over Sri Lanka, especially in the war ravaged North. I thought I will go today, as it was Christmas, also because of my family.

Unlike most people, I didn’t go to the crib in the Church. But I did have images of Jesus being born in a cattle shed 2008 years ago. That Mary was compelled to give birth to Jesus away from her home, as she and Joseph were forced to leave her hometown, while she was pregnant, due to an order of the rulers of that time.

I sat quietly in the church and said a silent prayer for the baby that I saw few weeks ago in Menik Farm, Vavuniya. She would be 40 days today. She had no name when I visited her. A baby born as her parents fled the advancing Army in Vanni. A baby who is forced to live in a mosquito infested, muddy and murky camp, as her parents are not allowed to live with their relatives, but confined to a defacto prison by the military, even though they are not charged with any crime.

The Christmas Mass was taking longer than the usual Sunday service, many prayers and long preaching by the priest.

There were prayers for the rulers and the military that they will soon bring about an end to the conflict with their ongoing military operations, which is on the verge of “victory”.

But there were no prayers for a negotiated, just, political solution that will meet aspirations of all communities.

There was no mention of a call for ceasefire by the two Anglican Bishops and three Catholic Bishops.

There were no prayers or mention of hundreds of thousands of displaced, men, women and children, with inadequate shelter, food, medicine, education, water and sanitation.

There were no prayers for children and adults conscripted as soldiers, their families.

There were no prayers for families of disappeared, those killed.

No remembering churches that were shelled and bombed, as they offered shelter to people fleeing the war, and no prayers for priests killed and disappeared as they were helping the war affected.

No remembering those tortured, those being detained merely on suspicion in inhumane conditions, worse than conditions that some animals are kept.

I wondered whether I was living in the same country, whether I was part of “one Catholic Church”.

Amidst my frustration and gloom, some gave me hope and inspiration.

A Catholic sister told me a while ago that she and a priest had shared about the plight of the displaced in the North during a Christmas Mass and asked people for their prayers and donations. People had donated more than Rs. 50,000.

After the mass, I visited three journalists being detained, one of who had written about children being conscripted as child soldiers just before he was detained. I went with a diplomat attached to an embassy in Colombo; she brought chocolates, and stood patiently in the sun with me for close to an hour, while waiting to get in. I will remember the smiles of the people we met and chatted briefly.

I also remembered the wife of one of the journalists, with who I had been in close contact. What would Christmas mean to her? What Christmas greetings, what Christmas gift could I offer her? Will my usual greeting, “Happy Christmas” have any meaning to her?

I met some Catholic sisters who were coming from the prison as I was about to go in. Several other priests – Anglican, Methodist and Catholic – as well as some other friends, who had got my text message, also told me they will visit detainees in the coming days.

So this is Christmas in Sri Lanka, 2008 December.

I could not help reflecting that if Jesus was to be born in Sri Lanka, he would not be born in the Church I went for the Christmas Mass.

It is possible though that Jesus might be born in a Church in the battle zones in the North, that offers shelter to people fleeing bombing and shelling from the sky and around them. Or probably in the prison I visited. Or in the house of a family member of a disappeared. Or amongst the hundreds of thousands of displaced people.

Happy Christmas from Sri Lanka.