Sri Lanka: Many misunderstood our advocacy — Fr. Emmanuel

Former President Chandrika, whom I earlier criticised for her “War for Peace” as now having the potential to become the mother of a united rainbow nation of three ethnic groups and four religions.


(March 15, 2017, Berlin, Sri Lanka Guardian) In an interview with Sri Lanka Guardian, the President of the Global Tamil Forum, a frontier representative of the Sri Lankan Tamil Community around the Globe, Reverend Father S. J. Emmanuel says that his political engagement and defense on behalf of his own people has been misunderstood as supporting terrorism against the state.

“Some mischievous people have gone mad in even accusing me of comparing Prabaharan to Jesus Christ! Nothing can be more blasphemous,” he said.

Excerpts of the first part one of this interview;

Question:   Thank you for joining us father! How are you? How do you feel your life and service for 50 years as a Catholic priest in and out of Sri Lanka?

Answer: Thank you. Unlike my colleagues, I did not have my priestly golden jubilee celebrations in my home diocese of Jaffna. I have finished all my golden jubilee celebrations outside Sri Lanka – in Toronto, London, Paris, Palermo, Germany and Rome. The climax of these was the concelebrated mass on our jubilee day 16.12.2016 with Pope Francis in his Chapel at.St.Martha. In my audience with him thereafter, I told him that I lived out of my 50 years of priesthood, only 30 years in Sri Lanka, the rest 20 years in self-exile. Quick came the surprising question “How did it go?” I told him of the hospitality of the German Diocese of Münster. I also handed to him a 2page-letter written in Italian. I thanked him for his visit to Sri Lanka and asked him to continue his encouragement to the Sri Lankan church to do more in collaboration with other religions for genuine reconciliation.

Though I was a late vocation after being a science teacher and lake-House journalist (1959- 61) to priesthood, I have enjoyed these 50 years serving as a disciple of Jesus, not only the Sinhalese and the Tamils of Sri Lanka, but also other peoples of the the Asian churches and the Germans.

As a theologian and ecclesiologist, formed during and according to the teachings of the 2nd Vat. Council, I gave my services in the formation of 100s of priests from all parts of Sri Lanka at the National Seminary for 10 years(1976-86) and later in my home diocese for another 10 years (1986-96) as Rector and Vicar General. I am proud of my students now serving the church as priests and some as bishops. In 1986 I founded a Centre for Better Society in Jaffna, with 4 religious leaders as patrons, to bring Catholics, Protestants, Hindus and Muslims to collaborate for the welfare of people. During the last round of Chandrika-LTTE peace Talks, I invited the Sinhala participants from the South to address my people at this Centre.

My students know my emphasis on the teachings of the 2nd.Vat. Council towards maturing as local churches of the people and its progressive vision to be the hope and aspiration of peoples (Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes).

I enjoyed defending myself and in being faithful to the two poles of my service – God and my conscience. Even Jesus was not free from suspicion and misunderstandings!


I was fortunate to be the Sri Lankan theologian in the first theological advisory committee for the Asian churches (TAC-FABC, 1986-94) and addressed many seminars in Asian countries about ministries, laity, inter-religious dialogue etc.  For the plenary meeting of the Asian bishops in Tokyo in in 1986, I gave the key-note address on the theme of Laity in the church.

As an Asian theologian, I have tried to be critically constructive of the local institutional church, and tried to move the Asian churches towards new horizons of inter-religious dialogue and harmony. Asian bishops were happy about my contributions, but some Vatican authorities were disturbed. I was suspected and questioned by Vatican authorities, but I enjoyed defending myself and in being faithful to the two poles of my service- God and my conscience. Even Jesus was not free from suspicion and misunderstandings!

During these last twenty years in self-exile, I have been teaching for short terms at Heythrop College, of the University of London, Münster and Frankfurt and served in two German parishes – 10 years as Pastor and the last 10 years as assistant. Being a friend of some German theologians, I still enjoy twittering my encouragement and criticism of the German church in the German language.

During my self-exile here several bishops and priests from Sri Lanka have visited me. I am thankful to them.

Question:  Father, as we talked in one of our previous discussions you have done much for Sinhala community as well. But many “extremists” are trying to portrait you as a pro-separatist. What’s your take?

Answer: Thank you for the chance to explain myself. As long as my services were within the church or directed to help poor with humanitarian services, there was no criticism of my life and services. I did help the handicapped children in Ark, Uduvil run by the Holy Family Sisters, and the children of the tea estates with education ( St.Peter’s Home which I started in 1981 in Ampitiya is still functioning in Punduloya, Nuwara Eliya under the Carmelite nuns).

But once I stepped in as a priest, to speak on behalf of those victimised by bombings of churches and schools, then I was misunderstood grossly from all sides. When I was Vicar General – Church of St.James in Jaffna and Sts.Peter & Paul in Navaly were bombed, some schools and villages Navatkudah were bombed. Naturally I spoke out on behalf of the people. I even sent a letter to the then President Chandrika.

Once I stepped in as a priest, to speak on behalf of those victimised by bombings of churches and schools, then I was misunderstood grossly from all sides.


For the priests and my bishop, I was an embarrassment, because they considered my reaction as politics and preferred to distance themselves and remain within the church. I had to go alone as Vicar General without my bishop to see the heap of dead bodies and give my reaction to the media and even send letters to Colombo. For the LTTE who were fighting the Govt. Forces, my reaction was supportive, and for the Government I was a supporter of LTTE terrorism! And the media in Colombo gave lot of false information, which even my own students in the south would have swallowed. And worse still, the then Secretary of the SL Bishops Conference, now Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith even issued a press statement distancing me from the church.

In spite of criticisms from all sides, I continued my mission as a disciple of Jesus Christ with conviction about a united peaceful Sri Lanka. 2 examples which can explain my thinking and action come to mind –

  1. From 1976 -86 I was professor in the National Seminary at Kandy. As Prefect of Studies under Rector Fr.Panditharatne, I used to go an invite a Buddhist monk from the Vihare to teach Buddhism for the priest-students of philosophy. And I made the learning of Sinhala and Tamil compulsory for all students and invited 5 lay teachers from outside. Till then, senior students volunteered to teach the juniors. (Bishop Vianney of Kandy told his students thereafter that knowing the 2nd language was a condition for ordination)
  2. At the National Pastoral Synod of April 1995 held at BMICH, Colombo it was I as Vicar General of Jaffna on the opening day 19.04.1995 , informed the 450 participants that that morning war has broken out again because LTTE attacked a ship at Trinco and that we should discuss the position of the church vis a vis the war. All agreeing I drafted a document with the title – Church as a Sacrament of Communication and Peace. This document was read out by the present Cardinal then aux. Bishop Malcolm Ranjith and unanimously approved. I did this out of my own conviction that Church must play a unique role in moving all from North and South towards Peace.

What saddens me is the falsehood and misunderstanding about me as a Tamil catholic priest in my engagement for a peaceful coexistence of all races and religions in the country. I was alone in defending myself – here is one example – a letter from me published on Jan.4th 1997, before 20 years, in the Sunday Times, Extra Plus, page 4 with the title – I only bear witness to the Truth, says priest. Just two paragraphs from it will shed light on my convictions up to date,

“As a Christian and a catholic priest called to live with a people suffering discriminations, death and destruction, I am committed to bear witness to the truth of events happening around me. No one on earth can silence me from fulfilling this commitment. I have published articles and booklets with my name which clearly set out my personal views, about justice and peace for all the peoples of Sri Lanka. I have no intention of offending my Sinhala brethren. Just because some of those truths I bear witness to are hurting those in power and not to the liking of others, I will not hide them. In order to bear witness to the truth (which liberates), I have no need to link up with any organisation – political or otherwise.

My Christian convictions about justice and peace inspired by Jesus Christ and the teachings of His Church are a motive force for my witness.

I am afraid that we all are heading towards a national disaster, because we are reluctant to recognise the truth, publish the truth and bear witness to the truth. The way to peace, as I see it, is to be truthful and realistic.”

But my activism at the international level as human rights activist and campaigner for peaceful coexistence in Sri Lanka has been grossly misunderstood. I have never thought or said or written anything against the dignity of the Sinhala people or Buddhism. It is true that I was in touch with the LTTE leadership and enabled even meeting of the Bishops with them for purpose of understanding, but not as approval all their methods and actions.

 

Only the few who visited me here in Germany know the truth of my life and work. There is a Latin saying, quid quid latet apparebit! Whatever is hidden will come to light on the last day!


My writings and speeches were about the governments and their politics. But unfortunately, my political engagement and defense on behalf of my own people has been misunderstood as supporting terrorism against the state.  Some mischievous people have gone mad in even accusing me of comparing Prabaharan to Jesus Christ! Nothing can be more blasphemous!

Only the few who visited me here in Germany know the truth of my life and work. There is a Latin saying, quid quid latet apparebit! Whatever is hidden will come to light on the last day!

Question: Given the end of war and the change of Government, have you any plan of returning to Sri Lanka?

Answer: My self-exile was due to misunderstandings on the part of the then Government, the media as well even of my own church. As President of the Global Tamil Forum, I also supported a regime change in Sri Lanka and also written articles in the Colombo media welcoming the new leaders including President Chandrika, whom I earlier criticised for her “War for Peace” as now having the potential to become the mother of a united rainbow nation of three ethnic groups and four religions.  The present Government leaders have met me several times and at present we critically collaborate with them. They have removed my name from the list of terrorists and even invited me.

At my ripe age of 83 I will favourably consider a visit or a longer stay only when when I can contribute positively in building a peaceful coexistence of all in Sri Lanka. One that is close to my heart is to encourage all religious leaders to undertake an inter-religious collaboration in favour of reconciliation. I have indicated this to the present leaders including Mr. Mano Tittawela in charge of the Secretariat for national unity.

[ Featured image: Reverend Father S. J. Emmanuel with Pope Francis, 266th and current Pope of the Roman Catholic Church in 2016 ]

To be continued!  

Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

Sri Lanka Guardian has been providing breaking news & views for the progressive community since 2007. We are independent and non-profit.