Accepted paper:

Sinhalese and tamil catholics in Sri Lanka: united by faith, divided by war


Bernardo Brown (Division of Arts and Sciences, College of Liberal Arts, International Christian University)

Paper short abstract:

The Catholic Church of Sri Lanka is deeply divided along the ethnic lines that separate the Tamil and Sinhalese communities. After 25 years of armed conflict, the postwar context has not helped to develop ties of solidarity among communities who share the same religious faith.

Paper long abstract:

Catholicism in Sri Lanka is the only major religious denomination that crosses the ethnic divide that separates Sinhalese and Tamil communities. After twenty-five years of civil war (1983-2009) and with a newly elected government, Sri Lanka has embarked on a long process of healing and reconciliation. However, a shared religious faith among Sri Lankan Catholics has not contributed to the rapprochement between these two communities, it has become an added challenge for laity and clergy on both sides whose expectations of solidarity and empathy were recurrently neglected during the war years. In a violent context where ethnicity took precedence over religion as the source of identity, Tamil Catholics have been perceived to side with the separatist movement while Sinhalese Catholics were seen as staunch supporters of the Sri Lankan military. The persistent apprehension with which Sinhalese and Tamils regard each other is palpable today within the Catholic Church, where ethnic affiliations continue to divide laities in the north and south of the country and all the way up to the highest hierarchy of the Sri Lankan Church. This paper examines the efforts of Catholic groups who organize multi-ethnic events and trips with youth from rural parishes to promote dialogues between Tamil and Sinhalese Catholics, often confronting the indifference of parishioners and clergy alike. The persistent difficulties that separate even those who share the same faith and participate in the same religious institution, reflects some of the long-term challenges that remain for the country's future.

panel P36
Anthropology and the post-war present in Sri Lanka: ethnographic reflections