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Bishop appeals for prayer after attacks on Muslims leads to state of emergency

Posted on: March 14, 2018 8:32 AM
Sri Lanka’s Special Task Force soldiers walk past a damaged mosque after a clash between two communities in Digana central district of Kandy last week.
Photo Credit: Dinuka Liyanawatte / Reuters

The senior Anglican bishop in Sri Lanka, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, has spoken out against an outbreak of violence targeting the Muslim communities in Amapara and Digana in the central district of Kandy. At least two people were killed and 232 homes destroyed in riots sparked by the death of a Sinhala Buddhist man. Mosques and shops have been set alight by rioters. The government has deployed a military task force to guard mosques and protect Muslims attending prayer services. The Bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Ceylon, has appealed for calm. And, in a message to Anglican Communion leaders, he wrote: “Please pray for us”.

“Barely had the nation recovered from the aftermath of the local government election, its political fall-out and the confusion created, that violence broke out in two areas, Amapara and Digana, where from all accounts personal disputes have been deliberately twisted to inflame hatred and violence against minorities, in this case the Muslim community,” he said. “Both incidents demonstrate how fragile inter-communal and inter-religious harmony is in this country and how little it takes for matters to spin out of control.

“The ugly pictures of rampaging mobs brandishing rods and poles setting fire to property and vehicles recalls to us the frightening images of the many riots that have torn this country apart and the irreparable damage it has caused our nation.

“Social harmony is the bedrock on which all else is built. It is foolish to imagine that anyone gains by this kind of mob violence. It is the responsibility of all religious, community leaders and politicians to speak and act to ensure that we maintain understanding and peace amongst communities despite our differences.

“The slow reaction of the authorities to the violence and arson has been greatly disappointing. If there has been lethargy, inaction or collusion at any level these must be investigated. The primary duty of any government is to ensure the public peace and come down strongly on anyone who attempts to take the law into their own hands.

“I call on the government to take urgent steps to bring an immediate halt to these criminal acts and to take stringent action against all those who use thuggery and violence and who incite them, including those who use social media for this purpose. Those who suffered harm and damages must be compensated and minority groups reassured that they cannot be used as scapegoats and pushed to desperation.”

A priest from the Anglican Church of Australia, the Revd Dr Ruwan Palapathwala, Priest in Charge of Whittlesea-Kinglake, was caught up in the violence when he stopped over in Sri Lanka while returning from the first meeting of the new Anglican Inter Faith Commission. Dr Palapathwala, who was born in Kandy, was attending the wedding of a Muslim family friend in Teldeniya when the riots spread to the township.

“An armed Sinhalese mob circled the small mosque and attempted an attack on the guests and the mosque,” he told ACNS. “With a lot of faith, courage and determination, I intervened, and after arguing for the welfare of the wedding party and Muslim brethren, I managed to defuse the situation which would have potentially ended up in unimaginable violence.

“As you could imagine, the situation was extremely tense, violent and dangerous. I am lucky to have come out of it unscathed. I thank God for placing me at the wedding as the only Kandian Sinhalese and a Christian priest.”

He added: “I have been involved in many inter-faith events in the past, but I think this was the very first instance I had to argue, appeal and plead for almost two hours for an interfaith understanding between a die-hard Sinhala-Buddhist mob and a group of Muslims in the midst of imminent violence and sheer danger.

“This is the second time I have pleaded [with] a machete-armed mob for interfaith understanding: the first time was in a village on the India-Nepal border in 2013 when I begged a violent Hindu mob for an inter-faith understanding between them and minority Christian shanty dwellers.”

He said that after reflecting on his experiences having returned to Melbourne, it made the Anglican Inter Faith Commission “and all that we resolved to achieve for inter-faith more real and meaningful.”