People united by tragedy
The National Basilica becomes a relief centre. Catholic clergy and Buddhist monks are involved in relief operations. Government sources put the death toll at over 18,000.

Colombo (AsiaNews) – Churches become relief centres for the displaced, Catholic priests and Buddhist monks are working together to bring aid, and the whole country is organising relief operations for the victims of Sunday's tsunami. This is happening in Sri Lanka, the worst hit country, where more than 18,000 people are estimated to have died.

The Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka at Tewatta (north of Colombo) has opened its doors to the displaced. Catholic clergy and laity as well as Buddhist monks are providing them with assistance.

"I am surprise about the generosity of people," said Fr Merl Shantha, the Basilica's administrator, which is part of the Archdiocese of Colombo. "Hundreds of men and women of every religious background are coming to help in the relief operations".

"Right now there are no religious, ethnic or racial differences," a Buddhist monk said. "We must be one to bring help to those in need."

"The tragedy, "Father Shantha said, "has brought people together. Everyone is collecting food, clean water and clothes. We are all praying the Rosary, for ourselves and for the country".

Currently, Mgr Oswald Gomis, Archbishop of Colombo, is visiting some of the affected coastal regions. He has made an appeal through the media urging everyone to contribute to the emergency.

Fr Sunil de Silva, the Archbishop's secretary, accompanied him. He relayed stories of destruction involving churches, temples and houses.

"In Matara, south-east of Colombo, the waves swept away about 400 faithful as they were attending Sunday mass," Father de Silva said.

"In Payagala," he added, "the tsunami destroyed five churches, including a mission house".

The Jesuit Houses were spared though and are now being used as relief centres for victims.

The four communities in Galle, Trinciomale, Batticaloa, and Colombo have opened their churches and residences to help the needy. The Jesuit Centre in Batticaloa is now sheltering up to 3,000 people.

The local branch of Caritas is also collecting medicines, clothes and especially clean water and food for the children through the diocesan network that includes Jaffna, Trinciomalee, Batticaloa, Galle and Colombo.

Newton Fernando, a senior officer with Caritas Sri Lanka, said his organisation "is working with the army, government agencies and NGOs to coordinate more effective actions".

Sunday's tsunami is the worst natural disaster to have hit the country in living memory. The death toll for the whole of south Asia now stands close to 40,000 dead and is bound to rise. (MA)