Last week, as shells fired by Sri Lanka Army guns only a few miles away exploded within the Madhu Church’s complex, the resident priests followed the Bishop of Mannar’s instructions and removed the revered statue to a safer location deeper within Vanni.
For the first time in over 300 years the presiding icon of Sri Lanka’s oldest Catholic site of pilgrimage has fled before an invading army, along with her serving priests and nuns. The last time was in 1670 when the Catholic Church fled persecution by the Protestant Dutch into the Vanni jungles.
As Bishop Raiyappu Joseph lamented, “Our lady of Madhu becomes refugee in her own land”.
In that way, the statue has become iconic of the entire Tamil people. Repeated Sri Lankan offensives and incessant human rights abuses over a quarter century of conflict, over a million people, almost one in three Tamils have been either internally displaced or made refugees.
Last week’s relocation of ‘Our lady of Madhu’ is emblematic of the conflict itself.
The targeting of the revered Madhu site is just the latest act in the Sinhala-Buddhist state’s persecution and marginalisation of the island’s other religions. Tamil-speaking Hindus, Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, and more recently, the Muslim people have been the targets of the state’s hegemonic project.
Of course, even Sinhala Christians also face persecution, with church burnings, violence against Christian NGOs and even the repeated tabling of so-called ‘anti-conversion’ legislation in Parliament (last time the United States reportedly intervened to stop such laws being passed).
However, Sinhala Christians have not been caught up in the state’s ethno-majoritarian onslaught in the Northeast and have not suffered the deprivations of bombardment, starvation and mass killings that the people of that region have.
This is not the first time the Madhu church has been bombarded by the military: in 1999, as the Army fled before a Tamil Tiger offensive, retreating Sri Lankan tanks fired into the church complex, killing over thirty Tamil refugees.
The international rules of war decree that warring parties have an obligation to protect religious sites.
However, in the context of the state’s drive to establish an ethnocracy, non-Buddhist religious sites have in fact been the targets and objectives of military campaigns.
The Sri Lankan state has, for example, militarised most of the major Hindu temples of the Northeast, constructing “High Security Zones” around them and separating worshippers, except on tightly regimented occasions by razor wire and machine guns.
Even, the present fighting in Madhu stems to a great extent from the present ultra-nationalist administration’s desire to raise the Lion flag over the venerated shrine, so as to sustain its standing amongst the majority Sinhala-Buddhists who swept President Mahinda Rajapakse to power two years ago.
The Rajapakse administration has made no effort to conceal its contempt for non-Buddhists. Consider the assassination of Tamil Parliamentarian Joseph Pararajasingham by government-backed paramilitaries, literally at the Batticaloa church’s alter in the middle of Christmas Mass in 2005. Then there was the ‘disappearance’ in 2006 of Father Brown in Jaffna and the shooting dead by soldiers of another Jaffna priest that year (even he, like so many innocent Tamils, had a grenade planted on him by his killers).
From the beginning of the armed conflict, Tamil churches and temples have been readily targeted by the Sinhala military (as US military academic Brian Blodgett puts it, the production of Sri Lanka’s “ethnically pure” military began in 1962).
Even during the ‘liberal’ President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s ‘War for Peace’ the Navaly church had several bombs dropped on it: almost a hundred people were killed in the airstrike in July 1995.
The Catholic Church has been rooted for centuries in the coastal areas of the Tamil north; particularly with the arrival in Mannar of St Francis Xavier of Portugal, circa 1645.
While militant Buddhism (as currently formulated in Sri Lanka unlike the pacifist Buddhisms practiced in the rest of Asia) - must necessarily clash with the Christian Church on ideological lines, there is another reason why the Church of the Northeast must come into confrontation with the Sinhala state.
The Church of Our Lady of Madhu, like many other places of worship across the Northeast have given shelter to waves of refugees throughout the conflict. The Mannar site has been one of the longest-functioning sanctuaries during the war.
In a war characterised by the state engaged in collective punishment through mass displacement, starvation by embargo and ‘scorched earth’ offensives (as conducted once again in the Eastern province during 2006-7), the Northeastern Church has sought to alleviate the very suffering and deprivation the state seeks to inflict.
And in terms of a majoritarian state trying to crush the Tamils and their struggle for liberation, the Church’s ideological stances on key issues, including social justice and collective rights, brings it inevitably into confrontation with the Sinhala state.
The Social mandate of the Catholic Church is enunciated quite clearly in the Vatican publication, “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church” which was summarised by Pope John Paul II in his apostolic letter, Tertio Millennio Adveniente (the Third Millenium).
The Social Doctrine deals comprehensively with the social issues of our time, with chapters entitled, “The Right to work”, “The Rights of Workers”, “Private Initiative and Business Initiative”, “Foundation and Purpose of the Political Community”, “The International Community” among others.
Perhaps the most illuminating in the context of the Tamil struggle are the chapters entitled “Political Authority” and “Human Rights”.
Para 157 notes that “The Magisterium points out that international law “rests upon the principle of equal respect for States, for each people's right to self-determination and for their free cooperation in view of the higher common good of humanity”. Peace is founded not only on respect for human rights but also on respect for the rights of peoples, in particular the right to independence.”
A nation has a “fundamental right to existence”, to “its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes ... its fundamental spiritual ‘sovereignty”', to “shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities”,
Para 504 of the Social Doctrine says: “The right to use force for purposes of legitimate defence is associated with the duty to protect and help innocent victims who are not able to defend themselves from acts of aggression.”
Consequently, the persecution of the Church by an authoritarian, ethno-majoritarian state, engaged in a systematic and broad-fronted onslaught against non-Sinhala-Buddhist communities should come as no surprise.
Of course, while the Catholic tradition, rooted in the Vatican and the living presence of the Pope, is itself under no threat due to the war in Sri Lanka, the Saivite Siddhanta tradition of Jaffna’s Hindus is unique, rooted in the ancient Tamil city and, under the onslaught of the majoritarian state, very much at risk of extinction.
And, as it turns, out the tradition migrated, to be preserved independently of the political fortunes of the Tamil state of Eelam, its home for millennia.
In contrast to Catholicism, there is no single organised Hindu authority: there are only an independent set of historic temples which follow the Saivite tradition.
The acknowledged religious leader of the Northeastern Hindus is Jaffna’s Yoga Swami, whose Saiva Siddhanta sect claims its spiritual lineage from an unbroken 2000-year old line of preceptors originating in the Himalayas.
Even as the Tamil refugees fled to the West in the eighties and nineties, the leading preceptor of Jaffna’s Hindu tradition had already laid the foundation to move the spiritual centre of the Saivite tradition to the West, their new home: in 1970 Yoga Swami, presciently as it turns out, ordained as his successor, a 22 year old American (known as Subramuniya Swami), instructing him explicitly to take his faith abroad and found a Saiva Siddhanta. It was established in Hawaii soon after.
This decision arose out of the Saivite Hindus’ very different approach to temples, spirituality and death. The Hindus believe that the temple is the connector between the material world and the spiritual world of their gods, a connection being maintained through meditation and the rituals of Puja.
For the faith to stay alive, the connection must be maintained unbroken at some location in the world, it matters not where. And in the temple of Siva in Hawaii founded by Subramuniya Swami, the priests have chanted prayers in Tamil and Sanskrit in an unbroken timeline since 1973, for 365 days a year, 24 hours a day.
Subramuniya Swami’s choice of America as a refuge for the Saivite tradition is no accident for as he points out: “Our constitution guarantees religious freedom.”
Meanwhile, the Sri Lankan ethno-majoritarian state sees its war against non-Sinhala-Buddhists challengers as a campaign ‘In defence of the Dharma’ as Tessa Bartholomeuz’s detailed study of the state’s military practices is titled.
However, Sri Lanka’s conflict is not a strictly a ‘religious war’.
The LTTE, which spearheads the Tamils’ struggle for self-determination, is a secular organisation. It is not fighting to protect Hinduism or any other religion per se. Rather it is fighting to establish the secular state of Tamil Eelam in which all religions will be treated equally – unlike in Sri Lanka where Buddhism has ‘a first and foremost place’ as the Constitution itself makes clear.
Indeed, the Tamils have long separated state and religion, from at least the Sangam era, as is clear from the copious literature of the era, including the Thirukkural.
The Tamils of the Sangam age (ca. 200 BCE to 200 CE) practiced three main religions - Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism. Scholars find the society tolerant towards all religions, with the monarchs themselves openly encouraged religious discussions, protecting the temples and monasteries of all sects and religions, irrespective of the doctrines they themselves believed in.
Today, as the international community continues to insist on a political solution to Sri Lanka’s conflict, they do so with a misunderstanding of the logic inherent in the state’s efforts to militarily crush the Tamil struggle for liberation.
The international analysis of Sri Lanka as a flawed democracy trying to defeat terrorism while attempting to build a liberal state stems from the international actors’ own hopes for this goal.
However the evidence to challenge this analysis is copious and ubiquitous, should international actors choose to look.
For example, why did Buddhism, despite very few of the minorities practicing it, come to be enshrined in the Constitution as having a ‘first and foremost’ place?
How did an interpretation of history which sees the Tamils as interlopers crushed and disciplined by Sinhala kings who were both valiant and devout Buddhists, come to become standard text in schools?
Why are temples and churches attacked with abandon by the military whilst Buddhist temples and statues are rapidly erected in areas conquered by the military?
Why are the Sri Lanka Army’s regiments (remember Sri Lanka is supposed to be a multi-ethnic state and polity) named after Sinhala kings said to have conquered the Tamils in the past?
Why, amid the supposedly secular nature of the state, are Buddhist rituals daily practices of the military and, for that matter, the official functions of state?
All the island’s inhabitants know precisely why. The answer lies at the heart of the Sri Lankan state and nation building project as conceived by the Sinhala-Buddhists.
Thus, terrorism for the Sri Lankan state is essentially resistance to Sinhala-Buddhist hegemony.
That is why journalists, academics, civil society activists and, yes, priests who challenge the state’s majoritarian practices are condemned as supporters of terrorism and become targets for murderous violence. (It is also why even the senior UN official Sir John Holmes could be denounced by the Sri Lankan government as a terrorist, without much consternation or embarrassment amongst the Sinhalese).
Until the international community takes a close look at the logic informing the practices of the Sri Lankan state and Sinhala politics, the conflict will remain inexplicable at best and ‘senseless violence’ at worst.
More importantly, until the international community is prepared to confront and smash the Sinhala-Buddhist project, there will be no peace in Sri Lanka.
The Tamils are not going to accept a subordinate place in a Sinhala chauvinist order that has accorded itself a privileged position as overlords of the island.
Not even if every non-Buddhist place of worship in the Northeast is razed to the ground.