Mannar (AsiaNews) - " Pope Francis's visit will be a great consolation for the people in the north of Sri Lanka who have been affected by war and who feel abandoned", says Msgr. Rayappu Joseph, Bishop of Mannar (Northern Province), home to one of the pontiff's destinations during his apostolic journey to the island scheduled for the first half of January 2015.
After Colombo, the island's capital,
the Pope will travel to the shrine of
Our Lady of Madhu, an important place
of pilgrimage for all of South Asia. Every year more than 600
thousand people come to pray to
the Virgin there.
"He will celebrate a Mass here - the prelate told AsiaNews - but he will also meet the survivors of the civil war, to listen to their painful testimonies and pray with and for them. We expect a large turnout from all the dioceses of the north and some of the South". The population, he adds, "welcomes his visit as a blessing from God, and we thank the Lord for that."
The diocese of Mannar - which includes the districts of Mannar and Vavuniya - is part of the "Catholic belt" that stretches from Negombo (Central Province) in Jaffna, as the area colonized by the Portuguese - who brought the first Catholic missionaries - is called. Erected in 1981, according to the latest available data (2004) it has a population of over 219 thousand people, 33% of them Catholic.
From 1983 to 2009, the island was the scene of a bloody civil war between the government and Tamil Tiger rebels (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam), an organization fighting to create an independent state in the north and east of the country, largely Tamil.
"During this war - Msgr. Joseph tells AsiaNews - we suffered losses of all kinds: human lives, houses, properties. Some of our priests were killed, churches and places we launched were destroyed. The population has been abandoned to itself, with only our presence to help them. I have to thank Caritas, who did a great job to help people in those years. "
Yet, says the bishop, "five years on from the end of the conflict, there has been no rehabilitation for the survivors. Nobody, neither the government nor anyone else, has taken responsibility for the 89 thousand war widows, the orphans, the maimed, people with psychological trauma. "
"The support and rehabilitation of a human being is a long journey" - said the bishop. "Children must be educated, clothed and treated if they are sick. We are there taking care of all of this with the help of friends and benefactors. But the government is not doing any rehabilitation work: they are only concerned with building roads and bridges and I cannot understand why they are not implementing measures for the families of the thousands of people who have died in war for the maimed, for those suffering from psychological problems. "
Since the end of the war, the government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa has initiated a number of development projects - especially in tourism - to make Sri Lanka the "Wonder of Asia". "With all these initiatives, the authorities are trying to get money from foreign lenders - says Msgr. Joseph -. I understand that there must be progress, but the government should make its people its priority. Fostering the development of the people , and not allow them to slide backwards"
Next to support social, added the bishop, "the Church also gives religious support. We try to support them and help them grow in faith, taking care of the sacramental aspects. We are there present, to accompany people throughout the rebuilding and rehabilitation of their lives. "
The problem of survivors' rehabilitation is closely connected with the living conditions of the Tamils, the country's second largest ethnic group (11.2%) after the Sinhalese (74.88%). The war became a real ethnic conflict between the two communities, and even today the Tamils complain of unequal treatment and undergo continuing violations by the authorities.
Msgr. Joseph believes "the current problems that have existed for a hundred years, have just one solution, which is finding a communion in each other's diversity. Tamils and Sinhalese cultures, languages and traditions. We could follow the India model and create a federal state, a single framework in which to implement a decentralization of power. But the government does not want this: It would have to change the Constitution, and the president. This personality has too often used his power, especially against minorities"(GM)