Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, 67, the archbishop of Colombo since 2009, made a cardinal the following year and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Sri Lanka, is a central figure of the Catholic Church in his country.
On November 29, Cardinal Ranjith spoke with Eglises d’Asie about issues related to Pope Francis’ Apostolic visit to the country from January 13-15. The interview with him follows.
Églises d’Asie: What does the pope’s visit mean for the Catholics of Sri Lanka and the country itself?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: I invited Pope Francis to come to Sri Lanka before he even appeared on the balcony of St Peter’s, on the day of his election on March 13, 2013.
His predecessor had gone to visit every continent except Asia. It is often called the continent of the 21st century, home to all the major religions; and so it is important that the pope makes Asia a priority for his Apostolic visits.
The pope said he would gladly come, but I wanted to make a formal written request. On March 15, I saw him and he reiterated his intention to visit. Back in Colombo, I asked the Episcopal Conference if such a visit was timely. The answer was positive, and we sent a letter of invitation to the pope. The government was consulted and also agreed with our decision to send a letter of invitation.
On February 8, 2014, I was in Rome for a meeting with members of the Sri Lankan diaspora. It was on this occasion that the invitation was made public. The pope was present at the meeting and he said he hoped to come to our country. Finally, on May 3, during our ad limina visit to Rome, the pope accepted our invitation.
Églises d’Asie: The pope’s visit comes at a time when the country is preparing for a presidential election. Do you see any risks of his keeping his scheduled visit?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: The first rumors about the holding of an early presidential election date back to August-September. At that time, everything was well under way for the coming of the pope.
As members of the Church, as bishops, we are not involved in politics. Elections are scheduled. What can we do about it? We asked the president to postpone the election, knowing that judging from previous elections, elections are always accompanied by tensions and even violence. But you do not invite the pope according to your own convenience, nor cancel such a visit in a snap.
Today, we the bishops, we are faced with a dilemma: either we request the postponement of the papal visit, or we trust God. You will understand that many of us want to move forward and have this visit take place as scheduled.
But for us Sri Lankans, there is another contradiction in wanting to push the pope’s visit. We say again and again that we are a rich country with an ancient and prestigious civilization, that the religious component of our society is essential, and yet we realize that our country is violent, and the violence is frequent. This is a spiritual weakness. In many other countries around the world, elections are held and do not give rise to outbursts of violence.
If we say the pope is not to come, to postpone his trip, we say to our people — and the world — we are only able to hold forth about the greatness of our civilization, but in reality, we indulge in violence. I want things to be taken in reverse: show that we behave like human beings and that we are not uncouth barbarians. This is the speech I would like to hear from those currently in power and to those who are in opposition, that these elections are a catalyst towards greater unity.
Églises d’Asie: The pope will meet with religious leaders. Of these, some Buddhist leaders have been critical about the pope’s visit, saying that he had to apologize for the violence against Buddhism by the colonial powers that dominated the country for nearly five centuries. Can you explain?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: The officials to which you refer are more motivated by political action than by religious or even historical thinking. The groups they represent are political, and you cannot generalize about the entire Buddhist community.
In 1994, a controversy erupted after the publication of John Paul II’s book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. John Paul II wrote that “the Buddhist tradition and the methods derived from it possess an almost entirely negative soteriology” or even that “the doctrines of salvation in Buddhism and Christianity were opposed”.
The first person who criticized this book and these passages relating to Buddhism was an English convert to Buddhism. A Jesuit priest then wrote that the pope had to apologize for writing those lines.
In Sri Lanka, a leading Buddhist monk has published an article in the press saying that the pope had every right to present his views on Buddhism because the Lord Buddha himself wanted his disciples to study critically what he taught and that they should, in turn, accept that their own teachings are subject to criticism.
We, therefore, cannot generalize. This year, I went to Paris by invitation to speak as a representative of the Catholic Church at a symposium organized by Unesco about Buddhism in the world. At the podium, I said I was happy to be born in a predominantly Buddhist country and that a good Catholic is by definition a person who was able to respect others.
Églises d’Asie: What are the proposals that the Church has put forward to support the reconstruction of national unity?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: The conflict that has torn Sri Lanka apart for more than 30 years is not a religious conflict. This conflict is ethnic, if we want to describe things very quickly. Sri Lanka is a Buddhist island and the Tamils came from neighboring India, Islam through traders, Christianity finally through the Portuguese, then the Dutch and the English. All these groups have lived in harmony for ages. During the 450 years of colonial rule, the dominant powers favored minorities. Naturally, when independence came the Sinhalese raised their heads and the Tamils resisted.
But politicians being what they are, since independence they have continued to pursue shortsighted goals and only favor their own interests, including their personal interests. And this works to the ruin of the common good.
As a Church, we can offer as a minority group a proposal to act according to the principles of reciprocity, understanding each other, reconciliation and citizenship. But are the men and women politicians of this country ready to hear this?
Nothing is less certain. The various attempts that have been conducted over the past four decades have not succeeded, and if I wanted to make a diagnosis, I’d say the patient has a headache. We change the pillow, but the damage persists because we do not administer medication. However it would be, we need to make sure that communities are sitting around the table and discussing what could be the new identity of Sri Lanka. Our misfortune is that no politician in this country has the caliber to undertake this and look beyond the protection of his shortsighted interests.
We are increasingly handicapped by our Constitution, passed in 1978 for a presidential regime (indeed inspired by the Constitution of your Fifth Republic). To describe the power that this text gives the president, just to mention one that was his main inspiration, JR Jayewardene, president from 1978 to 1989. He once said: “The only thing I cannot do with this Constitution is change a man into a woman and vice versa.” This Constitution allows any excess to whomever wins the presidency, and all are fighting for access to the highest office.
The election campaign for the presidential has been as short as it has been intense. It has been said here and there that as cardinal and president of the Episcopal Conference, you are very close to the president. What do you say to this?
I cannot let them say that. If I lived in a country like, say, Canada or the United States, where everyone has fundamental rights, perhaps I would act differently. But here in Sri Lanka, we Catholics are facing severe constraints.
When I was bishop of Ratnapura (1995-2001), my diocese had some 21,000 faithful in the midst of a population of 1.5 million people. As a bishop, I could not say things that would have endangered my people. As Archbishop of Colombo (since 2009) and president of the Episcopal Conference, I have to think about my people. In Colombo, there are six million people. Some 700,000 are Catholics, including 250,000 Tamils. The rest are Sinhalese.
They say I am close to the current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, but we can also say I was close to his predecessor, Chandrika Kumaratunga (1994-2005). I must be in contact with the country’s institutions and those who preside. If I did not act well, the same people who criticize me now would criticize me for being indifferent to the fate of my people.
In this country, you cannot exercise responsibility in the Church without becoming, in a way, a politician yourself. In these days, in an election campaign, the opposition candidate, Mithripala Sirisena, has asked to meet me. I’ll see him, of course, but there is no doubt that the incumbent president will immediately ask the same thing. And I will see him, too.
Recently, a group of fishermen from Negombo, a region where Catholics are very numerous, came to see me to bitterly complain about the price of fuel. They asked me to intervene. I went to see the president because this is how things work here. However, is it to address issues of oil prices that I became a priest? No, but if I refused to intervene on the grounds that this is not my field, I might as well tender my resignation to the pope. For the good of my people, I cannot help but be involved in the life of this country.
Églises d’Asie: Catholics in Sri Lanka comprise both Sinhalese and Tamils. Are they as divided among themselves as can be seen elsewhere in the country? What unity is there among the bishops?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: With respect to unity among the bishops, you know that Bishop Rayappu Joseph of Mannar [note: in the Northern Province, Tamil majority] and I conducted several mediation missions between the government and the Tamil Tigers in 1980 and 1990. These joint missions did not stop there. They continued into the last phase of the war, from 2007 to 2009.
In 2007, I was in Rome [note: as Secretary of the Congregation for the Sacraments and Divine Worship]. Back in my country for a vacation, I went to see the president [Mahinda Rajapaksa] to tell him that I was willing to go talk to the Tigers in their headquarters in Kilinochchi. Rajapaksa did not think that my initiative could lead to anything but he gave an order to his defense minister at the time, General Sarath Fonseka, to facilitate our transportation to the headquarters of the Tigers. I say ‘our transportation’ because, again, I made the trip with Bishop Joseph Rayappu.
Our mediation did not succeed because the leaders of the Tigers did not want to compromise and thought they could win the war. Their mindset, their intellectual functioning, was purely and solely military, without real thought or realistic policy.
In May 2009, you know, the war ended with the LTTE’s [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam] defeat. But we cannot say that I destroyed the Tamil cause, or that President Rajapaksa has destroyed the Tamil cause. It is the LTTE that, by its intransigence and its radicalism, destroyed the Tamil cause.
Églises d’Asie: As a minority, does the Church need to adopt a particular position vis-à-vis political power?
Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith: You remember, we are a minority. That’s why I have to protect my people — and it is not a question here of Sinhalese versus Tamils. I am the pastor of a diocese which has two-thirds Sinhalese and one-third Tamils. They are all part of my people. But we are a minority.
For several months, Sri Lanka has been the subject of a campaign by the international community, specifically the UN and Western countries, that would require investigation of what happened during the last phase of the war. But in this country, among the Sinhalese majority — and therefore Buddhist — a lot of people think that this inquiry is a campaign by Christians, by Christian countries against Sri Lanka. We, as the Sri Lankan Catholics, we have to live with the Buddhists and we cannot run the risk of being treated as “traitors” by them.
As for the attitude of the international community, I would say that it is counter-productive. The pursuit of this campaign only pushes the Sinhala voters into the arms of those among the Sinhalese who hold extremist views. Whether justified or not, it’s not for me to say, but I have to be realistic. And I would add that we should all be. From an electoral point of view, any opinion whatsoever pointing in one direction causes a strengthening of the opposite camp.
Basically, my point is simple: We want to live and thrive in Sri Lanka, and it is the Sri Lankan people — and they alone — who will decide their future. We all know that the Constitution must be changed, that the Tamil grievances are real, that autonomy [in the provinces of the North and East] is the institutional solution towards which we should strive. We know it and we accept it. But it is not for the international community, nor the Sri Lankan diaspora, to dictate what should be our future.
This interview appears courtesy of Églises d’Asie, the information agency of the Paris Foreign Missions. Translated and edited from the original French, it is published here by permission.