Rev Ebe Joseph: Healing the wounds of civil war in Sri Lanka

Ebe Joseph
The Church of Scotland's Asia Secretary Sandy Sneddon (left) met with Rev Ebe Joseph, General Secretary of National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, and Mr Bala Gnanapragasam of the Methodist Church in Britain during their visit to Scotland.

Christians are a small minority in Sri Lanka but they are playing a crucial role in healing the wounds left by decades of ethnic and religious conflict.

"The Christian church is in a very vital position in Sri Lanka a country that has experienced three and a half decades of a violent and very cruel war," says Rev Ebe Joseph, the General Secretary of National Christian Council of Sri Lanka.

"The Church has members in both communities—the Tamil and Sinhalese communities together—and therefore we can bring those communities into dialogue with each other and to envision their future."

Ebe understands the scars left by the conflict all too well.

In 1984 he was one of more than 80 Christians who were trapped inside a burning building. Outside its doors were a furious mob who were killing all the Tamil people.

Ebe says he owes his life to the courageous Buddhist caretaker who barred the door putting his own body between the Christians and the enraged mob.

"He had the courage to stand near the gate and he prevented them coming in," Ebe says. "At one point he told them, 'If you want to enter you will have to kill me'."

Because the man was Sinhalese and a Buddhist, the mob moved on. Inside the terrified Tamils moved to the far end of the sprawling building to get away from the fire. They were rescued by police, but during 12 tense hours they were refused entry at every place they tried to take refuge. Finally they found a welcome–at a Hindu temple.

Days later a visitor came to the temple looking for 'a minister'. It turned out to be a Muslim beggar who slept on the veranda of the church, where Ebe would give him tea. He had been going from camp to camp looking for his Christian friend. Now it was the beggar who offered to bring Ebe tea.

That was how Ebe first got involved with interfaith peacebuilding.

"Those two days of experience with the Sinhalese Buddhist, the Hindu temple and the Muslim beggar gave me the impetus to look at other religions in a more open and more positive way," he says.

Building partnerships despite religious differences

After working in partnership with a Buddhist monk to improve life for children in a refugee camp of more than 350,000, Ebe began reaching out to key religious leaders across Sri Lanka. To the surprise of many Sri Lankans, religious leaders from across the country, including the largest and most powerful denominations, responded.

Ebe visited the Church of Scotland and other partner churches in Britain to explore links with SriLankans here who may wish to support the peacebuilding process. Sandy Sneddon, Asia Secretary for the Church of Scotland's World Mission Council is a longstanding supporter of Ebe's work.

"Ebe Joseph is one of the most courageous men I know," Sandy says. "He has been a committed advocate in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation in Sri Lanka. The work he has pioneered is crucial in bringing the different faith communities together."

The majority of Sri Lanka's 21.5 million people are Sinhalese Buddhists. Tamil Hindus make up about 18 percent of the population, while another 7.5 percent are Muslims. Christians are also about 7.5 percent of the population and come from across both ethnic groups.

Moving on from the hurt of the past

Now with 25 years of experience building trust and learning about one another, those faith leaders are part of a new effort comparable to South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation effort. Three different initiatives are underway aimed at:

  • Finding a resolution for relatives of thousands of 'disappeared people'
  • Creating a Sri Lankan truth and reconciliation commission
  • Creating a Compassion Council that will help people move on from the past

In this predominantly Buddhist culture, Ebe says people think about moving on from the past through compassion rather than forgiveness, which for many is an unfamiliar Christian idea. The main thing, Ebe says, is to help people avoid being trapped in hatred and revenge.

"Collectively we are using our religious and spiritual resources as we try to heal the bitter memories of people, the bitter experiences of people, and work to restore relationships between the communities so we can build a nation together."

Since the conflict ended in 2009, much has changed. You don't see military checkpoints across major roads now and people can speak freely, Ebe says, but with the memory of war crimes on all sides of the conflict the stability still feels fragile.

"The wounds and the hurt are still fresh in people's minds so the work of reconciliation is a huge task," Ebe says. "Both in the political sphere and in terms of healing the bitter memories of people, the Church has a huge task ahead."