Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror

In the bustling heart of Colombo amid the cacophony of urban life, a group of fishermen from Pitipana, Negombo, have taken a bold stand against what they perceive as injustice. Their protest, echoing through the streets and resonating within the halls of the Archdiocese of Colombo, speaks to a deeper narrative of conflict, resource management and the pursuit of fairness within the church community.

At the center of their grievances lies the Pitipana Fisheries Market, affectionately known as Lellama. For generations, this market has been a vital lifeline for the local fishing community, providing not only a means of sustenance but also a cultural and economic hub around which their lives revolve. However, recent developments have stirred tensions and fueled accusations of impropriety against the Archdiocese of Colombo.

The fishermen allege that the Archdiocese, under the leadership of Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, has overstepped its bounds by exerting unauthorized control over the market. They argue that this has resulted in unfair management practices including restricted access and arbitrary regulations, which have directly impacted their ability to earn a livelihood. These accusations have come to a head following a court decision in February 2023, which mandated the transfer of the market’s management to a designated authority.

The origins of this dispute can be traced back to a decades-old agreement dating back to 1963 when the harbor was gifted to the United Fisheries Association under the stewardship of Cardinal Thomas Cooray. Allegations of breaches of these conditions have prompted legal action and calls for greater transparency and accountability in the market’s administration.

In response to mounting pressure, the Archdiocese has sought to address the concerns raised by the fishermen. Fr. Cyril Gamini Fernando, speaking on behalf of Cardinal Ranjith, has reiterated the church’s commitment to transparent and equitable management of the market. He has assured the fishing community that an independent authority will be appointed to oversee its operations with the aim of maximizing benefits for all stakeholders.

However, the fishermen remain skeptical, viewing these assurances with a cautious eye. Their protest and petition to the Apostolic Nunciature underscore their deep seated desire for direct involvement in the decision making process. They argue that only through genuine collaboration and shared governance can the market truly serve the interests of those who depend on it most.

The complexity of the situation is further underscored by a counter protest held in Negombo expressing support for the Archdiocese’s position. This dichotomy highlights the need for open dialogue and understanding as well as a commitment to seeking common ground amidst divergent perspectives.

In navigating conflict within the church, it is imperative to adhere to biblical principles that prioritize unity, love and humility. However, this does not mean that the church should abstain entirely from engaging with political matters. Instead, the church should approach politics with discernment and a commitment to biblical values. While partisan politics can often be divisive, there are certain issues where the church’s voice is crucial for advocating justice, compassion and righteousness in society. For instance, issues such as poverty, racism and human rights are deeply rooted in biblical principles and warrant the church’s active involvement.

Church leaders, in particular, have a responsibility to prioritize the mission of the church above mere political involvement. By staying focused on this mission while engaging with political issues in a principled manner, the church can avoid unnecessary division.