Methodist Church

Sri Lankan Methodists find hope despite war, tsunami

STAMFORD (Connecticut) – The escalation of the war in Sri Lanka has made life very difficult, according to the President of The Methodist Church in Sri Lanka.

“Our own congregations are now being displaced from their areas,” the Rev W. P. Ebenezer Joseph, who is based in the capital city Colombo, said.

Because of the conflict, which has intensified since a ceasefire collapsed in 2006, at least eight Methodist congregations have been forced to move, along with the rest of their villages.

The Rev Joseph, who said this at the annual meeting of the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries recently, also thanked the board and its relief agency, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR), for support after the devastating tsunami in late 2004.

“We need your visits to engage us … We need your prayers, and also we need your support to be involved in international advocacy,” he told the board’s directors.

The tsunami displaced 16 congregations, destroyed nine churches, and accounted for the deaths of 166 church members, including 22 children who were in a church facility when the tsunami hit.

Sri Lankan Methodists were grateful for the solidarity of people who came to visit after the tsunami, including two representatives from UMCOR. “Their presence gave us so much strength,” he added.

Rebuilding communities
At the invitation of the Sri Lankan church, UMCOR-NGO – the relief agency’s non-governmental organisation – set up an office to begin collaborating on relief work. The support from UMCOR and the Board of Global Ministries “definitely enhanced what we were able to achieve”, the Rev Joseph said.

Those achievements have included the building of 775 new houses, with another 536 under construction and 300 planned in the future. Repairs have been completed on 178 homes, with 85 currently under repair.

The church has two vocational training centres and one handloom centre and has restored livelihoods for 2,300 families. Livelihood restoration has been provided for 800 widows.

“We are asking every Methodist to bring another into the saving power of Christ in the next two years.”

Nearly 5,000 children have started school again with the church’s help. It sponsors three new homes for children, 18 nurseries and one day-care centre.

A “care for the caregiver” programme, which receives support from the Board of Global Ministries, has provided “space for reflection”, counselling and financial assistance for pastors, evangelists, church workers and lay leaders.

“Care for caregivers has really lifted up the spirit of the people on the ground,” the Rev Joseph said.

But the renewed conflict between the rebel Tamil Tigers and the government, particularly in Sri Lanka’s northern and eastern provinces, has both slowed down the tsunami recovery and created new needs as people are displaced from their homes.

The impact of war
The Rev Joseph said the long years of war have left one in 14 people internally displaced in Sri Lanka. “We had hope, but it was shattered in 2006 when the war resumed,” he added.

The situation also has created new dangers. More than 30 aid workers have been killed in Sri Lanka since November 2005.

Methodists were among the 5,000 people who attended the recent funeral of a Roman Catholic priest who was killed while bringing relief supplies to displaced people in the Kilinochchi area. According to Ecumenical News International, the Rev Nicholapillai Pakiaranjit often drove between areas controlled by the government and by the rebels in his role as coordinator of the Jesuit Refugee Service in Mannar.

Sri Lankan Methodists also cross the divide in their roles as relief workers and peacemakers. When a community is displaced by war, the congregation follows. “They see the church as a church that is ever present with them,” the Rev Joseph explained. “The last person to withdraw will be the church worker,” he said.

For now, the peace process has been silenced. “I think the days ahead are going to be challenging,” he said. “On both sides, the extremist voices are getting more and more hardened.”

Methodists were part of an inter-faith effort which launched a campaign against violence. On Oct 19 last year, nearly 500 religious leaders embarked on a five-km march bearing banners that say “Stop the War”.

The Rev Joseph is also among a group trying to organise a national seminar on peace next month. The event will bring in key figures from other countries where peace was achieved after a long struggle, such as South Africa and Northern Ireland. At the same time, a peace festival will be held in various regions to signal “that people are tired of the war”. – United Methodist News Service.

Linda Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.