Sri Lankan Bishops Stand with Protesters in Ongoing Crisis

Sri Lankans protest earlier this year in front of the Presidential Secretariat | AntanO, Wikipedia

By Neva Rae Fox

After months of social depravations and the resignation of its prime minister on May 9, Sri Lanka still faces a tough future. Throughout the upheavals, the bishops and clergy of the Anglican Church of Ceylon have expressed support for the populace as anti-government protests have broken out across the South Asian island nation.

Before the government’s collapse, Presiding Bishop Keerthisiri Fernando and Bishop of Colombo Dushantha Rodrigo urged the government to “listen to the cries of the people” and address the escalating crisis.

Earlier this year, the Sri Lankan government defaulted on its debt to the International Monetary Fund. Shortages of foreign currency reserves have limited the country’s ability to import essential goods, including fuel, cooking gas, and medicines. There have been prolonged power cuts across the nation of 22 million, as well as steep increases in inflation.

Reuters reported on May 9 that Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned “to make way for a unity government to try to find a way out of the country’s worst economic crisis in history, but protesters said they also wanted his brother to stand down as president.” Gotabaya Rajapaksa, who has been president since 2019, has vowed to complete his current term, which ends in two years.

The situation continued to deteriorate after Mahinda Rajapaksa resigned. His successor as prime minister, Ranil Wickremesinghe, who had served in that office multiple times in the past, warned of scarcities and coming difficulties: “We must prepare ourselves to make some sacrifices and face the challenges of this period.”

There are 165 Anglican churches in two dioceses: Colombo and Kurunegala. While Christianity is a minority religion in the country, the Anglican Church had a prominent civic role under British colonial rule (when the island was known as Ceylon), and still operates many of the nation’s most highly regarded schools.

“The ministry of the church during this crisis has kept the church on the front page for the right reasons,” said layman Nagulan Nesiah, Episcopal Relief and Development’s senior program officer for disaster resilience. “Faith voices are front and center in solidarity of protesters,” Nesiah said. On Maundy Thursday, bishops and priests washed the feet of protesters.

Nesiah, who has lived in Sri Lanka since 2011, described street protests, economic collapse, skyrocketing inflation, and power outages that usually last seven hours a day. He said tourism, a vital industry, had been picking up, only to be stifled by another COVID wave.

On May 19, the nation’s two bishops issued a strong statement after a clergy retreat focused on the theme “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity.”

“We note with disappointment and deep concern the unfolding of events after the resignation of the former Prime Minister,” the bishops wrote. “What we have experienced is not a system change, but merely a change of Prime Minister.

“In the past few days Parliament clearly demonstrated the validity of the claims of young protesters and civil society: that Sri Lanka’s politicians are out of touch with reality and therefore Sri Lanka needs a system change.”

They added: “It is becoming increasingly clear that what has now emerged, apart from a change in Prime Minister, is a ‘new’ government that will not address the basic demands of the people and will brush aside the factors that led to this situation in the first place.”

Their letter concluded: “The country needs, at this time of crisis, true leaders who can respond to the clear demands of the people and the present crisis in good faith. The events of the past week, sadly, demonstrate that we are missing an opportunity for meaningful change once again.”

John Buterbaugh is the first Episcopal Church Young Adult Service Corps volunteer to serve in Sri Lanka. On his weblog, he writes about meeting Sri Lankans; immersing himself in a new culture; worshiping in parishes across the island; working with LEADS, a charity dedicated to the welfare of children; teaching English; and trying new foods, like guava.

He also addresses the state of emergency, the power outages, and the struggles of living in a bankrupt country.

“Amid growing tensions, the government imposed a curfew starting at 2 p.m.,” he wrote May 9. “I experienced another power cut at home, this time only from 5 p.m. to 6:20 p.m. Meanwhile, I have seen (but mostly have heard) people shooting off fireworks in the streets, and I have no idea why.”

He added: “Sri Lankans will have a feeling of ‘win some, lose some.’ The prime minister they no longer support has finally resigned, but a state of emergency, a curfew, and power cuts persist.”



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