(1999 March 10)

Last Sunday some Catholics were engaged in a protest against the decision of the commissioner of elections to hold the provincial council elections in five provinces on the first of April 1999. It was not a spontaneous protest from the ordinary church going Catholics but an event carefully planned and organised by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Colombo himself had requested the Catholics to protest outside their churches against the holding of elections on the first of April. Hence it cannot be another April Fool's joke and we have to consider this request and also the politics behind this protest very seriously.

There were some posters and placards prepared by the Church for the occasion and from the uniformity of the slogans appeared on these it is clear that the even the slogans had been thought about by a central body and conveyed to the local parishes. According to "The Island" of 8th March "the banners and posters displayed called for the protection of religious freedom and the protection of the minorities". One of the slogans that appeared in Sinhala said that the Christians had been denied even the Easter mass (Kristhiani apata pasku deva meheyath ahimida?). Now this is a very serious allegation that arouses the feelings of the Christians/Catholics. When read in Sinhala it gives the impression that the Christians have been denied almost every thing else previously and that the authorities are now trying to deny them even their right to their devotional observances on Good Friday. As this slogan is one that had been carefully thought about by the hierarchy of the Church one could even question the bona fides of the action taken by the Catholic Church. Could the Church inform the general public what the Christians have been denied in this country?

The Catholic Church has called for the protection of religious freedom and protection of minorities. Whom do they mean by the minorities? Is it only the so-called religious minorities? If it is so then the Catholic Church has asked the Catholics to come out on to the streets calling for the protection of religious freedom and protection of the Christians/Catholics of this country, not because of any state policy by the cabinet and/or the parliament discriminating against the Christians/Catholics, but on the action of an independent government official deciding to hold the provincial council elections on Maundy Thursday. I am not sure whether this is the first time an election has been fixed for Maundy Thursday in any part of the world where the Christians/Catholics live. Even if it is so it cannot be used as an example to tell the world that the religious freedom of the Christians/Catholics in the country is being eroded. In any case as it is the Church and not few individuals or organisations which called the Catholics to come out on to the streets it has to be inferred that the Catholic Church has decided that either there is no religious freedom for the Christians/Catholics in this country or that their religious freedom has been diminished. One asks for protection of religious freedom, citing examples only when that freedom is being eroded or when there is no freedom. The Church in this instance was not asking for protection of religious freedom in the abstract. Can the Archbishop who requested the Catholics to protest, spell out the reasons behind this decision of the Catholic Church? When the Tamil racists, which include many Tamil Catholic priests have been going round the world preaching that the Tamils have been discriminated against by the Sinhala Buddhists why should the Catholic Church add fuel to the fire by announcing that the religious freedom of the Christians/Catholics should also be protected presumably from the Sinhala Buddhist government servants? By this act the hierarchy of the Catholic Church has tried to incite especially the Sinhala Catholics against the Sinhala Buddhists. Even if there was a curtailment of religious freedom of the Catholics, the Church, as a responsible body should have acted with more restraint especially when there is a Tamil racist problem in the country.

On the other hand if by minorities in this statement the Tamils, Muslims etc., are meant has the Catholic Church decided officially that there is discrimination against them in Sri Lanka? If it is so when was this decision taken? It is a well-known fact that the higher ups in the Church are sympathetic towards Tamil racism as revealed by their statements. In this connection it is of interest to note that Mr. Ashok Singhal (in Sinhala, Asoka Sinhala?), the leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has told the "Indian Express" of the 29th of December 1998 that 'the militant outfits operating in the north eastern States (in India) were fed by Christian organisations, "like the LTTE in Sri Lanka" '.

Now this protest organised by the Catholic Church took place while the Commissioner of Elections had gone before the Supreme Court in order to find out whether the date of the elections could be changed. In fact from the newspaper reports it transpires that the Commissioner has requested the Supreme Court to postpone the elections in view of the petitions he has received mainly from the Catholics. What else he could have done? The Supreme Court has to decide now whether it is within the law to postpone the elections to some other date. Once the decision is in the hands of the Supreme Court responsible people are not supposed to intervene in or influence the judgement by resorting to street protests even if the streets are by the side of the Churches.

"The Island" of 8th March in its report states further that the Archdiocesan Secretariat in a statement thanking the Catholics for conducting the protest in a prayerful manner (this confirms that the protest was organised officially by the Catholic Church) states: "According to the news reaching the Secretariat from the parishes the demonstration was very orderly and without incident. A special word of thanks is extended to the Police who co-operated with the parish priests and lay leaders to conduct the protest in front of Catholic Churches. We will now as law abiding citizens await and bow to the decision of the Supreme Court". The Archdiocesan Secretariat had decided to protest knowing very well that the Commissioner of Elections had already gone to the Supreme Court after he had received letters and petitions against his decision to hold the provincial council elections on the first of April. Now there was no need of protest as the Commissioner had done what he could do within the law. The Catholic Church could have protested earlier, if they were against the decision of the Commissioner of Elections, before the Commissioner decided to go before the Supreme Court. All that the Church could do after the Commissioner went before the Supreme Court was to "await and bow down to the decision of the Supreme Court" and not to incite the Catholics by requesting them to participate in street demonstrations with the above mentioned slogans. One is tempted to conclude that by the so-called protest the Church has tried to show its strength to the general public as well as the Supreme Court of the country.

It is interesting to note that a reader (presumably a Catholic) writing to "the Island" of 8th March has expressed the view that the Archbishop's request is untenable. I would quote a few paragraphs from his significant letter to the editor.

"The grounds for the protest call by the Archbishop are reportedly that Catholics will not be able to attend to their religious observances on Maundy Thursday and on Good Friday, too, if a curfew is declared late on the polling day covering the next day as well. The following points need to be made:

Maundy Thursday is a working day and the liturgical service begins only around 6p.m. Polling that day begins at 7a.m. and ends at 4p.m. The liturgical service on Good Friday begins at 3 p. m. in some parishes and in others an hour or so later. The other services conducted in churches are devotional, not liturgical. Neither day is a day of obligation, i.e. church attendance is not obligatory. Besides, Good Friday is not a mercantile holiday, only a public and bank holiday. Even if circumstances warrant the imposition of a curfew late on 1st April, extending to the next day it does not prevent individual Catholics from reading and meditating on the Scriptures in their homes in the spirit of Holy Week prayer.

If the maintenance of law and order and the observance of public peace entail inconvenience to individuals and groups, as Catholics we should not grumble about placing the national good above sectarian interest, however pious it may be.

TO INTERPRET THE INCONVENIENCE THAT WILL BE CAUSED BY THE CURTAILMENT OF TRADITIONAL PRACTICES AS A DENIAL OF THE RIGHT OF WORSHIP IS UNTENABLE AND TENDENTIOUS (emphasis added). Already feelings have been roused by some parish priests and their greenhorn assistants, who interpret the Archbishop's circular in an unwarranted manner. Additionally, provocative posters are being displaced within church premises."

Another reader writing as "A Catholic Conscience" to "The Island" of 9th March says: " Sadly Catholics who hold views that are different from those of the Bishops have no opportunity to express them - even though they may have nothing to do with matters of doctrine- except the secular press. The sort of arguments that Peter and Paul had with each other are no longer tolerated. It is time the members of the Church found a way of expressing their views and being consulted when decisions are made that are basically of a civic nature. For I cannot see how holding the poll on April 1, which is not even a holiday, can amount to a denial of my right to worship".

We shall now move on to the other consequences of the action of the Church . The Catholic Church wants the Commissioner to postpone the elections to a subsequent date. According to the Supreme Court decision the elections have to be held before the 27th of April. What are the other dates available to the Commissioner of Elections, when especially the smaller parties and the independent groups would like to see that the elections are held as early as possible due to financial constraints? According to the "Divaina" of 9th March already a number of Buddhist and national organisations have informed the Commissioner of Elections that they are not in agreement of postponing the elections to a date during the Sinhala new year period. The Atawaka poya, which falls on the eighth of April, is also cited in this connection. The crux of the argument of these organisations is that if the elections are postponed due to the Christians/Catholics being unable to attend to their religious observances then the same is true in the case of the Buddhists who observe Sil on the four poya days of the month and therefore it is unfair to postpone the elections to any one of these days. Further if curfew is imposed after the election day some of the upasikas and upasakas who travel to distant temples to observe Sil would be stranded or they would be prevented from observing Sil on these days. These organisations also claim that the new year is the most important national event of the Sinhala people who prepare for the event well in advance. Here again imposing of curfew will be a hindrance to the people who do their shopping during the last ten days or so and hence a postponement of the elections to a date within ten days of the Sinhala new year is opposed by the above organisations.

Now all these problems could have been avoided if the Catholic Church took a different stand when the date of the elections was announced. The Church could have made arrangements with the authorities to issue provisional curfew passes through the parish priest to those who would go to the Church on Good Friday. These passes could have been issued the previous Sunday and the Church going Catholics could have used them only to go to the Church and come back if the Government were to impose curfew following the elections.

However a better remedy would have been to make sure that no violence takes place on the election day and the Church together with the others should have worked towards achieving this end rather than trying to show their strength through unwarranted slogans and protests. It is not a difficult task to see through the activities of the Bishops and the others who play politics of the former colonial powers in order to establish their hegemony through the provincial council elections. Even Mr.Rajiv Gandhi who imposed on us the provincial councils would not have dreamt the elections to the provincial councils would be used for this purpose.