For weeks, some 1,000 workers—most of them Buddhists—have raced to erect what they hope will be the world’s tallest artificial Christmas tree.
Like this island, which is no stranger to ethnic and religious strife, the mission has traversed a minefield of conflict.
Launched with great fanfare in August near the main beach in this tropical city, the project was derailed when Sri Lanka’s seniormost Catholic authority criticized it as a “wasteful expenditure.” That sparked a frenzied social-media debate. An intervention by the country’s prime minister was needed to get it back on track.
By Thursday, with days to go before Christmas, the tree was about 200 feet high, seemingly already big enough to break the current Guinness world record for an artificial tree of 180.4 feet tall, built last year in Guangzhou, China.
The tree’s main advocate, a former cricket star and now prominent politician, hopes it can be a symbol of peaceful cooperation among ethnic and religious groups in a nation still recovering from a 27-year-long civil war.
“We wanted to bring Sri Lankans together again, show them what we can accomplish when we work together,” said the politician, Arjuna Ranatunga, a 53-year-old Buddhist member of parliament whose constituency is made up mostly of members of Sri Lanka’s small Catholic community. “I told them that we must take the record or there is no point.”
Mr. Ranatunga knows something about such moments, as well as how fleeting they can be. He led the country’s cricket squad to victory in the 1996 World Cup Championship. The match took place at the height of an insurgency led by Tamil-speaking guerrillas against the Sinhalese-speaking, mostly Buddhist majority.
The government declared a temporary cease-fire for the match, which brought Sri Lankans of all types dancing into the streets together.
Yet the conflict dragged on. Even after the government crushed the rebels in 2009—after as many as 40,000 mostly Tamil civilian deaths in the final years of fighting, according to the United Nations—reconciliation between Tamils and the Sinhalese has been slow. Violence by Buddhist extremist groups against Muslims and evangelical Christian groups has also been a problem.
Mr. Ranatunga, who is also the minister of ports, said he was approached with the tree idea in early August by a group of mostly Buddhist workers from the state-run Sri Lanka Ports Authority.
The workers saw a Christmas tree as a festive symbol and sufficiently secular for all faiths to rally behind during a holiday season that is critical to Sri Lanka’s tourism industry, he said. Christmas décor isn’t unusual in Sri Lanka; urban centers, malls and office buildings are often decked out for the holiday, though only around 7% of the country’s 20 million people are Christian.
One of the workers, W.H. Nanayakkara, a crane driver in the Colombo port who is Buddhist, designed the tree to rise to 325 feet. The plan required 30 tons of steel and hundreds of yards of chicken wire. It would be decked out in bells, stars and doves made of more than one million pine cones painted silver and gold. The trunk is made of wooden planks recycled by saw mills. Local companies agreed to donate most of the materials.
Assembly soon began near Colombo’s main beach, drawing curious onlookers and a social-media following. State port workers were drafted into construction, later joined by dozens of volunteers, with some 150 people working on the project each day.
In early December, the head of Sri Lanka’s Catholic Church, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, made his pronouncement, saying the $200,000 cost of donated materials would be better spent on the poor. Mr. Ranatunga halted work in deference to the cardinal.
Then social media took over. On Twitter and Facebook, commentators from Sri Lanka and beyond debated the value of the tree, and the project to build it. Comments ranged from the angry to the upbeat.
All the while, the half-finished tree skeleton, now suddenly in the news, became the backdrop for a frenzy of selfie photographs by a burgeoning fan base.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, who has made reconciliation a theme of his administration, stepped in. He talked with the cardinal, and afterward said he had secured the cleric’s consent for the tree to go forward.
Cardinal Ranjith hasn’t publicly commented on the project since then. Father Edmond Tillekeratne, director of the archdiocese’s social communications center, said the cardinal never opposed construction of the tree, but simply wanted to emphasize that the “spirit of Christmas is helping the poor.”
The tree began rising again. On Dec. 15, in a makeshift workshop by the beach, workers began carving a 20-foot Santa and 40-foot sleigh out of Styrofoam to be mounted halfway up the tree, which is to be bedecked with some 300,000 lights. Crowds of onlookers have gathered to watch.
“Christmas trees are loved by everyone,” said Hisham Mohammad, a 28-year-old Muslim mechanic who dropped by to volunteer his skills as a welder. “I like that this tree also has doves to symbolize peace because that is what our country needs more than anything else.”
Shelia de Silva, a Catholic mother of two children, said her Christmases have long been multidenominational.
“Growing up, I had many friends of different faiths and one thing we always did was decorate Christmas trees together,” she said on the beach near the rising tree. “My children are fascinated by it and keep asking questions.”
A spokesperson for the Guinness World Records said the organization is processing a request from the group in Sri Lanka to verify the tree as a record. Prime Minister Wickremesinghe plans to light the tree on Christmas Eve. (WSJ)