War Weary Nation Hopes Pope’s Visit Will Help End Conflict
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Devout Roman Catholics believe Father Joseph Vaz performed miracles when he came to Sri Lanka 300 years ago. They hope he can do another when the pope comes to beatify him.
After 11 years of civil war, many Sri Lankans believe a miracle is needed to help bring peace to this ethnically divided island nation, which lies off the southern tip of India.
Sri Lanka is dominated by Buddhist Sinhalese, who are battling a rebellion by minority Tamils who want their own homeland in the north and east. The Tamils, who contend they are discriminated against in jobs and education, are mostly Hindus but also have many Christians.
Pope John Paul II’s visit in late January comes as a new government and the Tamil Tiger guerrilla movement are taking tentative steps toward peace.
The government announced Monday that the rebels accepted a proposal to start a cease-fire before Christmas. But terms of the truce remain to be worked out, and previous attempts at negotiations have foundered.
About 100,000 Catholics in the Tamil stronghold of Jaffna, a northern peninsula, have asked permission to travel to the capital, Colombo, for the Jan. 20 beatification of Vaz.
A step toward sainthood, beatification is a proclamation by the church that a person is worthy of becoming a saint.
″The church has repeatedly urged the government to negotiate with the Tamil Tigers on opening a land route to the peninsula, since almost all Jaffna Catholics are anxious to see His Holiness,″ said the Rev. Malcolm Ranjith, the auxiliary bishop of Colombo.
Rebels have banned traffic on the two land routes from the peninsula since 1992, while army troops block the way from the other side.
″Even the guerrillas have agreed that Catholics should use this wonderful opportunity and will allow them passage,″ said Bishop Thomas Savundranayagam in Jaffna.
Legends have grown about Vaz, an Indian missionary known as the ″Apostle of Lanka,″ since he came to the island in 1687.
He sneaked in aboard a slave ship after the island’s Calvinist Dutch rulers expelled 120 missionaries in an effort to stamp out Catholicism. He started his missionary work at Jaffna.
The miracle ascribed to Vaz that earned his beatification came in 1938, when the family of a dying Indian woman put his picture on her body and prayed. Five doctors testified to the Vatican that no scientific explanation could be found for her recovery.
Now, many Catholics hope for a miracle to end the bloodshed.
Peace talks that began in October were suspended after a suicide bomber killed the leader of the country’s main opposition party and 56 other people at an election rally.
The interrupted round of talks was focusing on opening a route to Jaffna. ″We hope the two sides will reach agreement before Jan. 20,″ said Ranjith.
But even without a formal agreement, the church is preparing for up to 10,000 Catholics to make the perilous crossing of the lagoon that separates Jaffna from the mainland.
Nearly half of the nation’s 1.2 million Catholics are expected to attend a three-hour Mass on the Galle Face Green on Colombo’s sea front.
Interest in the visit is not confined to Christians on Sri Lanka, where about 70 percent of the 17 million people are Buddhist, 15 percent are Hindus and 7 percent each are Christians and Muslims.
″Everyone is excited. This event will really put Sri Lanka on the world map. All we are known for is war, corruption and political assassinations,″ said Mohamed Nazeer, 37, a Muslim trader from Dharga, a town in the south.