Sri Lanka’s president and cardinal confirm the Pope’s visit to the island
Cardinal Ranjith and President Rajapaksa have confirmed that Francis’ visit to the island will go ahead, though the date of the elections remains a mystery. Meanwhile, the Vatican delegation has arrived
“Pope Francis will visit Sri Lanka.” Two top Sri Lankan leaders – President Mahinda Rajapaksa who originally invited Francis and the Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith –confirmed the news today. The president confirmed the visit upon the arrival of the Vatican delegation, which travelled to Sri Lanka to discuss the final detail of the trip. Cardinal Ranjith informed priests during their assembly, in an attempt to clear up the uncertainty of the past few days regarding the papal visit, which is scheduled to take place from13 to 15 January 2015.
There had been suggestions that the visit might be cancelled. Final confirmation came when the Vatican group in charge of planning the papal visit arrived on the island Marco Polo described as “the most beautiful island in the world”. Cardinal Ranjith and Sri Lanka’s bishops were caught between a rock and a hard place, caught between the requirements of the Holy See and the strategic plans of the Sri Lankan government.
What caused the ruckus surrounding Francis’ pilgrimage was the presidential election date. In what seems like a shrewd tactical move, the government announced elections would be held “in the month of January”. Mounting speculations in the media did all the rest, shrouding the visit in mystery. But despite today’s official announcement, one thing still remains an enigma: the official date on which the elections will take place – the government has not yet announced when this will be.
The dates that have been circulating – proposed by the government – are January 9th and 10th, just days, that is, before the Pope’s visit. The Holy See is not happy about this, for obvious reasons: firstly, Pope Francis’ visit would be thrown into the cauldron of the Sri Lankan election campaign and secondly, the Pope would be arriving in a country that will still be boiling over with political fervour after the elections, immersed either in triumphalism or in bitter controversy. Not advisable therefore.
For this reason, bishops have written an official letter to the government, asking for a clarification. Church spokesman, Cyril Gamini, pointed out that the government’s failure to answer would put the papal visit at risk. Cardinal Ranjith hastened to reassure Sri Lankans and a few days later the presidential office sent confirmation. Many have been asking how the cardinal could have acted so boldly. Could it be because he “[holds] both the keys of the heart of Frederick” as Dante put it in the Inferno? In this case President Rajapaksa’s?
The figure of central importance here, is indeed, Mahinda Rajapaksa, the president who has already completed two mandates as the country’s leader (he has been President since 2005) and had a Constitutional amendment approved, guaranteeing his eligibility to stay in office for a third consecutive term. He is Colombo’s strong man. He has crushed the resistance of the Tamil Tiger guerrillas, bringing peace – albeit at a high price – to a country that endured 26 years of bloody civil war.
He rejected the UN’s human rights requests, refusing an international inquiry into war crimes and upholding the principle of non-intervention. He became a spokesman for nationalism, upon which he gathered political consensus. He focused on winning over the Sinhalese and Buddhist majorities by appealing to the aspects of identity, ethnicity and religion.
“Rajapksa is playing with the election date in order to get as much support as he can from Christians and radical Buddhists,” Vatican Insider sources in the Sri Lankan Catholic community say. This could turn out to be a dangerous game for a president who is usually adept at handling social and political situations. This operation may cost him his reputation and his future. On the one hand, the failure of the “Francis operation” would be a political disaster and a blow to the government’s credibility. On the other Rajapaksa needs to channel and manage the pressures placed on him by radical Buddhist group Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), in a way that is advantageous for him. BBS recently launched a campaign to amend the Constitution and proclaim Sri Lanka a Buddhist state.
The BBS has been openly hostile toward Francis’ visit to the island. An honourable way out, according to analysts, would be to hold elections in March 2015, just before the UN Human Rights Council publishes its report on Sri Lanka. This would allow Rajapksa to ride the nationalist wave as well.
In a statement to Vatican Insider, a Sri Lankan missionary of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate said: “The recent launch of a railway line that connects the northern part of the country to the south, is an important step. But there is still a psychological, social and cultural gap that separates the Sinhalese and the Tamils and the wounds caused by the civil war remain deep. “The government now requires every foreign citizen wishing to travel to the north, to hold a special permit issued by the Ministry of Defence. Missionaries fear that the Pope’s visit to Tamil territory will be very brief or may even be cancelled, given the strong military presence in the area.
Rayappu Joseph, Bishop of Mannar, the Tamil diocese Francis will be going to, to celebrate mass the Shrine of Our Lady of Madhou, has reiterated that the aim of the Pope’s visit is to encourage reconciliation. This, he said, could mark a “turning point” in what is a historic moment for the country. If politics allows it that is.