Church Construction in Sri Lanka

Date: Wednesday, 24 April 2019
Author: Rev A James MacInnes

Undoubtedly you will be aware that a state of emergency was declared in Sri Lanka after a series of bomb blasts on Easter Sunday. More than 350 people have been killed and more than 500 injured. At 9 am local time, there were nearly simultaneous explosions in three luxury hotels and three Roman Catholic churches, coinciding with morning mass. Being Easter it is almost inevitable that the congregations would have been larger than usual. Most of the chosen targets were around or within Colombo, the capital city, though there was also an attack in Batticaloa on the eastern coast. Had my schedule allowed it, I would have traveled to Batticaloa on my last visit to see the work done there by a Reformed Baptist pastor-friend of Rev Partheepan.

International news reports that the attackers were Muslim, and speculates that they may have been provoked, in part, after violent clashes between Buddhist and Muslim groups during 2018 when one Muslim man was killed, though this would not account for the present targets chosen. Reports also indicate that the sophistication of the assaults indicates foreign involvement, and Islamic State has claimed responsibility.

Amongst the uncertainty and speculation, what is clear, and what should concern us greatly, is that from Sri Lanka’s multi-faith communities it is the minority Christian community that has been specifically targeted – the Roman Catholic Church is synonymous with the public perception of Christianity, given that of the 7% of the population said to be Christian, 82% are Roman Catholic.

It’s hard to convey the tangible impact that religion has in every aspect of life in Sri Lanka. Almost everyone and everywhere is shaped accordingly. Generally, the Sinhala people (75% of the population of 20 million) are Buddhist, while Tamils (11%) are Hindu. The next largest community is Muslim Tamils (9%), though they identify exclusively along religious, not ethnic lines. In the early days of Western Colonialism, the Portuguese brought Catholicism, and then the British, a now liberal, Anglican Church.

The huge number of roadside shrines and places of worship emphasise not only the centrality of religion but also the confusion that this has brought. Quite literally, side-by-side, are places for worship and meditation relating to different faiths. Roman Catholic saints and Hindu gods, representations of the Buddha, imposing Mosques, and colonial Anglican churches. Hindu temples are elaborately ornamented and brightly painted, while Buddhist shrines have more of minimalist simplicity. Hand-painted signs occasionally indicate the presence of a small charismatic church, it’s name commonly betraying it’s focus upon a health and wealth prosperity gospel.

Visiting a member of the congregation one evening, I felt just how oppressive this can be as a mosque some distance from her home broadcast a call to prayer. It was a very simple home, with walls and floor made of unfinished and unpainted concrete, other than a small TV on a flimsy stand, the only furniture in the main room was a stack of five or six plastic moulded chairs which were quickly set out upon our arrival. With permanently open glassless windows to maximise ventilation, it was impossible to shut out the sound, which comes loud and clear, five times a day. On the back of Parthee’s motorbike, I later passed that mosque, an imposing building in a large compound – far greater in size than our little church. Within Sri Lanka, Islam particularly has grown in size and confidence over the last 100 years.

Though religions exist cheek by jowl what has happened reveals that Sri Lanka is not a model of enlightened pluralistic utopia. When riots between Muslim and Buddhist groups broke out last year in the central tea-growing region, the government responded by imposing a local curfew and shutting down social media across the whole nation. Again social media has been shut down, but this time a national dusk to dawn curfew imposed. This strong-armed response of the state betraying a sense of vulnerability that troubles might easily escalate.

Partheepan was preaching at a communion service in Vavuniya when the first attacks took place. Being the final communion season in the present building there were many memories of rich gospel blessing over the past seven years, together with eager anticipation of what the congregation may experience in the new building which is nearing completion. The congregation’s custom is to eat together after the morning service and then for the younger members to remain behind after the evening service for fellowship and further teaching. In his inimitable way, Parthee resolved the problem presented by the national curfew that came into effect at 6 pm. On this occasion Parthee wore his ministerial collar (he generally prefers a light shirt and tie), and with Syanthan, a young man who helps in the congregation, ferrying passengers in the 3-wheeler, Parthee escorted them on his motorbike, collar clearly on display, negotiating and explaining at each police roadblock (no problem Pastor, no problem) until each of the congregation were safely home.

The situation is far from resolved, social media remains unplugged, a national curfew has again been imposed, and further explosive devices have been detected. At the hospital where Parthee’s wife Dino nurses the military were called while part of the building evacuated, though no device was discovered. 

Of course, meanwhile, work is proceeding with the new building. The walls have been plastered and should be ready for painting. The roof has been secured, shaped and coloured tin sheeting – giving the impression of terracotta tiles, and the internal floors are about to be laid.

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Please pray for Parthee and Dino, the congregation in both Vavuniya and Mullaitheevu, his Baptist friend Kethees working in Batticaloa, and the whole of that troubled nation. Ultimately it is only the Lord who is able to bring all these affairs to a peaceful conclusion. Also, thank our gracious God that in the midst of this dark confusion gospel light is shining forth.