As a Muslim girl from Batticaloa, F. U. Sahira was wary of working with Sinhalese and Tamils as part of a reconciliation program designed to help heal religious and other rifts in the wake of Sri Lanka's civil war
. The former Sri Lankan capital remains haunted by memories of a Tamil-led massacre at a mosque in the nearby town of Kattankudy during Friday prayers in 1990. Some 147 Muslim men and boys were killed at the mosque as an estimated 30 Tamil rebels sprayed automatic fire and hurled grenades at devotees, leaving hundreds more injured. Although Sahira, 25, was not born when the killing took place, she grew up hearing stories about it from her grandmother and her neighbors. She got another reminder last year of the ease with which anti-Muslim sentiment can erupt into violence in Sri Lanka.
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A well-coordinated campaign led to weeks of rioting in Ampara and Kandy
that spread across the country, leaving two people dead and 450 mosques, Muslim-run businesses, and homes damaged or torched by mobs of Buddhists. As such, Sahira was eyeing her fellow "students" with caution as she embarked on a four-day course in Allagollewa in North Central Province organized by a local branch of Caritas, the Catholic Church's charity arm. Caritas has been engaged in similar reconciliation projects for at least a decade
. Caritas Anuradhapura (Sethsaviya center) ran the Dec. 27-30 program in a bid to strengthen communities still reeling from the experience of three decades of war and religious-based violence, at a grassroots level. "On the first day, we had some fear about working with Buddhists and Christians, but that soon vanished, and Sinhalese and Tamils also became good friends," said Sahira. A Muslim lady carries a bouquet of flowers to offer to her friends during the workshop in December 2018. (ucanews.com photo)
According to a 2011 census, 70.2 percent of Sri Lankans are Theravada Buddhists, 12.6 percent Hindus, 9.7 percent Muslims (mostly Sunni), and 7.4 percent Christians, including 6.1 percent Catholic. Most Tamils are Hindus. Sinhalese, who are largely Buddhist, with Christians forming up a minority, comprise about 75 percent of the population. "We went to Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, a mosque and St. Anthony's Catholic church in Allagollewa to understand their religious practices and culture," said Sahira, who can speak both Tamil and Sinhala. "We spent four days staying with Buddhist and Catholic families in Allagollewa and we were made to feel very welcome and were treated well," she said. She pleaded to politicians and extremist groups to "let us build friendly relations with people of all religions" and "please don't disturb our friendship." She recalls how strange it felt to visit a Buddhist temple for the first time. "Some of the monks were amazed to see Muslims enter their temples, but they also gave us a warm welcome," she said. The workshop was built around trust-building exercises to resolve areas of misunderstanding and discuss pressing religious and socio-economic issues. Meaningful religious harmony remains a multi-faceted challenge for transitional justice in the country. Tamil and Sinhala communities are still divided after decades of systematic injustice, political violence, and other failures of governance. Sellakuryi Razaviya, a Hindu, said the workshop inspired him to work towards harmony. "The war is over," he said. "We ask those who oppose our gatherings not to try and divide us further, as we have already suffered greatly." "We are laying the foundation for a proper peace," he added. "Now Hindus can go to churches and temples, and also open their doors to Muslims. Religion should be a tool for healing, not a vehicle for suspicion, doubt and mistrust." The civil war began in 1983 and officially ended on May 18, 2009 when the government defeated the Tamil Tigers (LTTE), who were fighting for a separate homeland in the country's North and East. According to the United Nations, the war claimed the lives of at least 40,000 civilians in its final days alone. Father Bennet Mellawa, director of Caritas Anuradhapura (Sethsaviya), said the agency would "continue the process of fostering religious harmony with other dioceses." He said it was heartening to hear so much positive feedback from those who attended the course, and that it was spurring more dialogue and engagement on the subject of reconciliation. The priest recalled how several Muslim and Hindu men had discussed rescuing many Sinhala and Tamil people during the war. A Buddhist man said he had changed his attitude towards Muslims, after the program ended. Caritas coordinator Madura Priyad Warnakulasuriya, 47, said the time was ripe for the church to step in and try to heal the wounded nation. "We can play a big role in this post-war period," he said. Caritas runs various programs, including meditation sessions, to help those who are still affected by the mental wounds, physical scars or loss of loved ones the war engendered. Anuradhapura Diocese has a population of 1.3 million, 90 percent of whom are Buddhist. An estimated 12,000 Catholics live there. "Everybody should try to understand each other better, and live in peace and harmony irrespective of their caste or creed," said Sahira.