By Leonard Jayawardena –
Certain controversial statements made by Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith‘s about human rights made during a Sunday sermon at a Catholic church service on the 23rd of last month as reported in the media and the subsequent tweet by Minister Mangala Samaraweera in response to that appear to have stirred up a minor hornet’s nest.
Though some commentators have seen the Cardinal’s statements as belittling or downplaying human rights, from his original statements as reported in a video clip shown on TV (obviously edited) as well as his subsequent “clarification,” it appears that what has actually irked the Cardinal is not human rights per se but the fact they are lectured to us by those whom he considers as being “without a religion” and holding and following a materialistic worldview and lifestyle. He thinks that human rights are enshrined in every religion and so secularists/materialists have no need to preach human rights to him and those who have a “religion” like him. He does not say what religion means to him but presumably it refers to a worldview that looks beyond the physical and material. He asserts that religion in the West is used for the most part much like a “coat” that is put on and put off as convenience dictates. In other words, a sham religion. He deprecates the idea of human rights without the underpinning of religious faith. He goes on to say, “We have practised human rights for centuries. If we follow religion properly the need to talk about human rights doesn’t arise. The religions (plural) we believe in contain human rights.”
I will briefly comment on some of his statements and then share with the readers a personal experience which illustrates, albeit in a minor sort of way relatively, how the Cardinal’s sensitivity to and practice of human rights falls short, despite his bombastic statements.
The Cardinal may resent the West for lecturing to us about human rights and wish they did not do so but, from their perspective, the need to raise the issue of human rights arose because they think that certain human rights have been violated in this country. In particular, the conduct of the Sri Lankan forces during the war with the LTTE which was concluded in 2009 has been questioned by the international community and since 2012 resolutions calling for investigation into alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka have been passed in the UN. The recently concluded Human Rights Council session in Geneva (10 – 28 September 2018) discussed Sri Lanka. The Cardinal’s stance on this issue is no secret with him being on record as having said that presenting a resolution against Sri Lanka by the United States Government at the United Nations Human Right Council (UNHRC) session in Geneva (in 2012) is an undue meddling in the sovereignty and integrity of Sri Lanka. I can recall a certain statement of the Cardinal on one occasion with regard to international calls for a war crimes investigation and his actual words in English translation were “We should not rake up old dirt.” Though the Cardinal made no reference to this issue in his controversial Sunday sermon as reported in the media, it is possible that the foregoing is the proximate cause for his tirade about human rights.
“We have practised human rights for centuries.” This last statement is a blatant falsehood and its refutation needs only a little more than a casual acquaintance with past Sri Lankan history. In his article “‘Human Rights Is Latest Religion Of Western Nations’ – Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith – A Comment” in Colombo Telegraph P. Soma Palan has dealt adequately with this point and I will add only a few more examples to show that the human rights record of our past is not something to crow about. In his An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon, Robert Knox reports that infanticide was practised in the Kandyan Kingdom and he says, “And this is reputed no fault, and no Law of the land takes cognizance of it.” Apparently, the rights of infants counted for little in that day and age. He also describes various barbaric exemplary punishments meted out to criminals and those who incurred the displeasure of the tyranical king. (Of course, similar barbaric punishments have been practised in the West in centuries past.) Under article 6 of the Kandyan Convention signed in 1815, the British abolished and prohibited every type of bodily torture and mutilation. When the British expedition to Kandy in 1803 failed and the British soldiers were forced to evacuate from the city they had occupied, the sick left behind at the hospital in Kandy were massacred by the Sinhalese forces. This would now constitute a war crime.
Historically, the Roman Catholic Church, of which the Cardinal is the local head, has been one of the worst violators of human rights the world has ever seen. Pagan Romans persecuted Christians at first, but when “Christianity” became the official religion under the Roman emperor Thedosius in the fourth century A.D, the tables were turned and the persecuted became the persecutors. Professed Christians, who had so long been on the defensive, turned to attacking the pagan religion. Supression of heresy, with coercion and violence where necessary, became an official policy of the Catholic Church and the savage, barbaric forms of torture practised in the enforcement of this policy are unspeakable. Augustine (4th century) and Thomas Aquinas (13th century), regarded as great theologians of the Catholic Church and honored with the title “saint,” supported this policy and even supplied theological defences and justifications for it. In many ways, the atrocities commited by the Catholic church through the centuries in her religious intolerance in collaboration with “Christian” states under her thumb pale into insignificance both in magnitude and duration those committed by, say, the ISIS, the so called Islamic State. When the Catholic Church ceased the violent persecution of heretics a few centuries ago, it was not because of a change of heart and contrition, realizing the inconsistency of this practice with Christ’s teachings, but because the altered political and social conditions of the world were no longer conducive to its continuation.
“If we follow religion properly the need to talk about human rights doesn’t arise. The religions (plural) we believe in contain human rights.” Here the Cardinal appears to be reducing all religions to a common denominator, which results in that naive and uninformed notion, albeit widely held, that “all religions are the same because they all teach you to do good.” While there is for sure an overlapping of moral values between different religions in varying degrees and, of course, between those moral values and human rights, there are also differences. Not all religions are created equal. Apart from differences in matters of doctrine, certain religious injunctions which, if followed strictly, would result in an infringement of modern human rights. For example, freedom of religion, including the right to change one’s religion, is a fundamental right which is also enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 18), but in Islam, one of the major religions of this country, the penalty prescribed for apostasy is death, a gross violation of human rights by modern standards. Certain verses of the Koran and the Hadiths sanction war on infidels. The status of women in Islam is lower than men, e.g., the testimony of a woman is worth only half of that of a man. Therefore, if you practise Islam “properly,” the inevitable result would be a violation of human rights.
Conversely, what some may consider a human right may be regarded as immoral and impermissible in religion. Abortion (“reproductive rights”) is a case in point. It is hard to deny that abortion, for whatever reason it is practised, results in the violation of the unborn child’s right to live and amounts to murder.
The ethical teachings of the Budda and Jesus Christ, if followed strictly, would, I think, certainly secure the aims of many of what are today called human rights. In some cases, religious teachings may even transcend human rights. The right to a free and fair trial is guaranteed in legal systems around the world and covered by Article 10 of UDHR, but no wrong doer is entitled to forgiveness! Jesus taught his disciples, “If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times a day, and comes back to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” Of course, the part about “seven times a day” is hyperbolical, but his point is clear. Even if one who offends you does not repent and seek your forgiveness, there is no right to retaliation in Christ’s laws! He enjoined non-resistance and pacifism (vide the Sermon on the Mount) to his followers. Citing the Old Testament book of Proverbs, the apostle Paul wrote, “If your enemy is hungry, feed him. If he is thirsty, give him something to drink. For in so doing you will be heaping fiery coals on his head” (Romans 12:20). No “human rights” ascend to such lofty heights!
Now to the hypocrisy part. I wrote to the Cardinal last year (sent to his personal email account), seeking his intervention in a certain current antisocial practice of Catholic churches in this country which is a source of much annoyance and vexation. This is (a) the use of loudspeakers during feast times not only within the church premises but also outside causing noise pollution that disturbs the peace of residents in the locality and (b) the inconvenience caused to motor traffic by religious processions. Some extracts of the letter are reproduced below.
(Start of extracts of letter)
I moved into Moratuwa two years ago and have been disturbed by the loudspeaker noise emitted during the feast times of two Roman Catholic churches situated nearby: St. Sebastian’s Church to the north and St. Michael’s Church to the south. Though mercifully not situated in the immediate vicinity of either church, my house is still within the noise pollution range of both thanks to the use (or, rather, abuse) of loudspeakers by the two churches.
Recently, the Feast of St. Sebastian’s Church was celebrated, climaxing on Saturday the 20th. Loudspeakers were strung along streets to cover the entire route of the Procession and they were blaring out hymns and prayers almost non-stop for three days from morning till late evening. I drove the entire route of the procession and my car odometer showed the total distance to be about 4.5 km! I have to brace myself for the noise onslaught from the south later this year!
It doesn’t need much spiritual enlightenment to understand that such noisy practice of religion is unethical and contrary to the spirit of Christianity. An internet search revealed that according to a Supreme Court decision the use of loudspeakers in this manner is also illegal. Given below is a link to an article that refers to this decision and discusses the issue of noise pollution in Sri Lanka in general.
There are also other religious places in the vicinity of my house which with their noise pollution cause similar annoyance and discomfort. These comprise a few mosques with their calls to prayer five times a day and a number of Buddhist temples broadcasting pirith, etc. Two of these temples also string loudspeakers along streets during special seasons. All these compel the residents to listen to their religious broadcasts against their will and violate their right to a peaceful living atmosphere. None of the custodians of these religious places seems to care that Sri Lanka is a multi-religious country and that in any locale there is a significant number and sometimes a majority of adherents of other religions who may not want to be subjected such broadcasts.
There is also the issue of religious processions causing much inconvenience, especially traffic congestion. I noticed this on Galle Road during the procession of the recently concluded Feast of St. Sebastian’s Church. As usually happens on such occasions, traffic was diverted to other roads. One can only imagine the thoughts that go through the minds of the irate motorists who are compelled to wait until the procession passes.
Men of decency and conscience will not engage in any activity that would cause offence, annoyance and discomfort to their fellow human beings and such is especially unbecoming for any religious organisation which claims Jesus Christ as the founder of its faith. Therefore I request you as the head of the Catholic Church of Sri Lanka to issue a directive to all Catholic churches at least (a) to restrict the use of loudspeakers to the premises of the churches and (b), where the processional route is long, to shorten the route so as to cause the least inconvenience to other users of the road.
If the above changes are made in the Catholic Church, the example thus set can be used to persuade other religious places to become more environmentally friendly too. True religion is ethical living with concern for the well being and hapiness of one’s fellow men. But, if in the practice of one’s religion suffering and discomfort is caused to others, what merit is there in it?
(End of extracts of letter)
I received no response to this letter, nor even a cursory acknowlegment of it. The “deafening silence” of the Cardinal speaks volumes about the actual extent of his concern for the rights of his fellow human beings. Or perhaps noise pollution and inconvenience caused to other users of public roads due to Catholic church actitivities do not come within the ambit of his understanding of human rights?
It is possible that he may not have seen my email, but that is no excuse, for the issue of noise pollution and inconvenience caused by religious broadcasts and religious processions respectively has been in the public discourse for a long time and the Cardinal cannot be unaware of it. In all probability for him the practice and requirements of “religion” overide the right of others to live in peace and quiet and their convenience. Noisy observance of religion is a sign of poor education and deficient spirituality. In his “clarification,” the Cardinal says, “What I basically intended to say on this matter was that if religion is truly practised it could take us to achieve levels of justice, going even beyond the expectations of human rights….” What we ask of the Cardinal is a little more modest: to do what is required by common decency. It behooves the Cardinal to turn the mirror inwards and put his own house in order before ranting against others.