By Laksiri Fernando –
The task for national reconciliation in Sri Lanka embodies not only building bridges between ethnic communities but also religions. Many interethnic issues overlap closely with interreligious differences, suspicions, misunderstandings and frictions. Therefore, I would propose that the Office for National Unity and Reconciliation (ONUR) and the Ministry of National Coexistence and Dialogue should undertake such activities to promote interreligious dialogue at various levels in order that religious amity, co-existence and peace prevail in the country.
I have not mentioned the Ministry of National Integration and Reconciliation separately, as I understand, ONRU is pivotal in that ministry. The other ministries that should come together for this purpose might be the ministries in charge of various religious affairs. These are scattered among different ministers/ministries. That also shows the gravity of the separation or distance between religions, and the need for interreligious dialogue. There are around twenty-five countries with ministries on religious affairs, but none with separate ministries for different religions. For example, in Indonesia there is one ministry but different directorates for different religions including for Buddhism.
The Need for Dialogue
The need for an interreligious dialogue in Sri Lanka is an urgent task given the recent attacks on several Muslim mosques and shops, and reported assaults on evangelical groups. Certain religious frictions also were reported because of arbitrary/forceful erection of Buddha statues in Hindu dominant localities in the north. Law enforcement undoubtedly is a requirement to curtail the spread of these activities, including bringing clear anti-hate speech and activity laws. Impartial law enforcement, on the other hand, requires education for police officers on interreligious matters and observing impartiality in respect of different religious groups. This could be part of interreligious dialogue, different religious leaders addressing the police officers jointly with other experts.
The need for interreligious dialogue is not only a national priority. It is an overall international task. Religious frictions, conflicts and violence have exacerbated around the world in recent past, primarily because of political reasons and power politics. Certain trends even have gone to the extent of terrorism. Many of the western cities are not safe today as a result. The conflicts are not only between different religions, but also between different sections within the same religion. Although this has been the case almost throughout history, the present stakes are more dramatic given the lethal weapons and methods that the adversaries use, and the vast populations that are affected by these conflicts. Therefore, a country like Sri Lanka, just coming out of a terrible conflict and a devastating war should be extremely careful.
Interreligious dialogue at various levels of religious leaders, practitioners and followers, could bring communities together to iron out their misunderstandings, ill feelings or grievances, if the dialogues are conducted in a proper manner. However, there shouldn’t be any illusion that the violent instigators also could be reformed through these dialogues. The instigators might use these forums to further their objectives and disrupt activities. Therefore, law enforcement is necessary before undertaking such dialogues.
The purposes of interreligious dialogues are visualized differently by different people under different circumstances. There are those who advocate interreligious dialogue for theological or simply said religious purposes. The long term and spiritual advantages of such efforts cannot be denied. ‘Interfaith’ dialogue is a more contemporary term for such efforts, for those who wish to learn from all religions or follow all of them. Raimon Panikkar (‘Interreligious Dialogue,’ 1999) came closer to this objective saying,
“In the present world context, one can hardly fail to discover positive and true values – even of the highest order – outside of one’s own tradition. Traditional religions have to face this challenge. ‘Splendid isolation’ is no longer possible.” (p. 6).
Even in a social sense, ‘splendid isolation’ is not an admirable situation. Organized religions and their priests/monks/imams do have social obligations. Those are mostly ethical and moral. This is another aspect of interreligious dialogue, mostly applicable to Sri Lanka or elsewhere under the present circumstances. That is why ‘interreligious dialogue’ should be a part of the ‘National Reconciliation Policy.’
There were such efforts in countries of former Yugoslavia and in the Balkans aftermath of several terrible ethno-religious conflicts. There are books written on these efforts. Those efforts, however, were after the event. Although Sri Lanka is in a post-conflict situation, the past conflict was not purely a religious one. The country therefore needs to be more proactive on the religious front, before unnecessary situations flare up. Interreligious dialogues are generally necessary in multi-religious and plural societies.
UNESCO and even the UN have been promoting interreligious dialogues at one time, particularly after the 9/11 events. However, there are no much activities today at a juncture where these are most necessary and important in the Middle East, North Africa, even in the West and elsewhere. However, Sri Lanka might be able to get some inspirations from some of these UN and particularly UNESCO work.
The UN Resolution
The UN General Assembly adopted a resolution 60/10 in 2005 unanimously and its title is most appropriate for Sri Lanka: “Promotion of Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation for Peace.” This is exactly what is required in Sri Lanka and ‘National Reconciliation’ could be easily added after ‘Peace.’ The resolution notes around a half a dozen of summits/dialogues carried around the world during 2004-2005 period. It is true that the situation in Sri Lanka was not conducive for such a summit or dialogue at that time. Although there was truce (CFA), it was terribly fragile. The issues were different. However now, the situation is different. Therefore, taking these examples, Sri Lanka might be able to go for one, now in an effective way. This is a suggestion.
More importantly, the resolution highlights the importance of interreligious dialogue in four operational paragraphs and 1 and 3 can be quoted below.
“Recognizing the commitment of all religions to peace,
1. Affirms that mutual understanding and interreligious dialogue constitute important dimensions of the dialogue among civilizations and of the culture of peace;
3. Invites the Secretary-General to continue to bring the promotion of interreligious dialogue to the attention of all Governments, regional organizations and relevant international organizations, including ways to strengthen the linkages and focus more on practical actions in the implementation of the initiatives on interreligious dialogue and cooperation for peace;” (See UN Resolution for 2005).
The above reinforces what I have suggested. (1) As interreligious dialogue is necessary for ‘culture of peace,’ it should take priority in the National Reconciliation Policy. (2) As the UN and UNESCO are committed to this endeavour, Sri Lanka should take the opportunity to seek their assistance. (3) As a member of the UN, Sri Lanka is also duty bound by this resolution as the paragraph 3 indicates.
A Lacuna in the National Policy
It is in the above context, that a lacuna in the now publicized ‘National Policy on Reconciliation and Coexistence’ could be highlighted (See ONRU website). In that document, there is a good understanding on some of the intractable problems, but there are several areas lacking both in diagnosis and in programmatic action. Lack of a strategy for interreligious dialogue is one. In the whole document of 13 pages (in English), there are only five places where religion is even mentioned. Only substantive reference is in the section on ‘National Coexistence and Diversity’ where it says, “…thereby recognizing the existence of more than one religion…” That is all.
Whether we like it or not, according to the Gallop Poll 2008, Sri Lanka is the third most religious country in the world. Therefore, religious animosities to the extent that they exist, are unhealthy for peace and national reconciliation. The four main world religions, Christianity (31.5 percent), Islam (23.2 percent), Hinduism (15.0 percent) and Buddhism (7.1 percent) are in this county, but in the opposite order. According to the 2011 census, 70.19 percent of Sri Lankans are Buddhists, 12.6 percent Hindus, 9.7 percent Muslims and 7.4 percent Christians. This opposite order could be one reason for the perceived antipathy. No one can be hundred percent sure.
The National Policy on Reconciliation and Coexistence was approved by the Cabinet on 2 May, last month. This is exactly the period where apparent religious tensions surfaced, of course instigated by some political activists in the name of Buddhism. However, if there were proper understanding and cooperation between the true leaders of these religions, most of these attacks could have been nipped in the bud. At least the law enforcement agencies could have acted more effectively.
The National Policy document is more on general principles, and action in the political sphere, but not so much on social action. It is weak in the ‘Implementation Strategy’ and in that section, only five policy areas are mentioned also in general terms. It is highly state/government centred. It is in this section, however, that action for Interreligious Dialogue should have come in, of course highlighting the need for religious amity and peace as a requirement in national unity, peace and reconciliation in other sections.
Summary and Possibilities
Dialogue is an accepted methodology in knowledge building and understanding each other. This is something we use day to day in a rudimentary form. Most of the Buddha’s teachings, in my understanding, were in a dialogical method. When Rhys Davids translated many of the Pali canon, he called them ‘Dialogues of the Buddha.’ Secular tradition of the method goes back to Socrates and Plato. This is an accepted methodology in all religions. What is important is not monologue but dialogue in trying conditions such as Sri Lanka today.
Interreligious dialogue is not about religious leaders amicably participating at state functions such as Independence Day or Republican Day. It is also not about an enactment of another ‘Panadura Vadaya’ (Panadura Debates. The purpose should be to come together, respecting the differences between each other, and advising the followers to adhere to ‘peace and non-violence’ that are fundamentals of all religions. The task is moral and ethical, and not definitely political. In addition, the religious leaders can advise the adherents to follow the ‘rule of law’ of the country, because under modern circumstances, we all are in organized societies where there is a state and even an elected government in charge. The freedom of expression and other rights should prevail, but the miscreants should not be allowed to create violence or chaos.
Interreligious dialogue is not unknown to Sri Lanka. Even at present, there is an Inter Religious Council. This could be the potential. But it can go beyond that limited participation and agendas. In late 1990s and early 2000s, during President Kurmaratunga’s time, I myself participated at many of the discussions at various levels attended by different ranking religious dignitaries of all religions. I have seen them interacting most amicably, promoting peace and harmony.
It is possible that what President Maithripala Sirisena said, meeting with the Inter Religious Council, on the 31st May was misunderstood or misinterpreted. What he said was, as clearly reported in his website, “All religious leaders should come to a single stage to solve religious conflicts.” This is about interreligious dialogue. This is not instead of enforcing law and order when violence is perpetrated by activists, but in addition, for long term peace and harmony in the country. There can be various ways of implementing interreligious dialogue for peace, harmony and reconciliation. There can be a centre to promote the dialogue at various levels. Religious scholars also should take part. There can be a website. There can be meetings and statements and even publications. These are preliminary ideas.