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Tamil bishop rebuilds lives of war victims

There are at least 89,000 war widows living in conflict-hit areas in eastern and northern Sri Lanka

Tamil bishop rebuilds lives of war victims

Bishop Joseph Ponniah addresses an interfaith gathering June 23 at the Catechist center in Batticaloa. (Photo supplied) 

Niranjani Roland, Colombo
Sri Lanka

November 20, 2017

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Eight years after the end of Sri Lanka’s bloody civil war, Batticaloa Diocese is rebuilding the lives of families headed by women.

Thousands of women whose husbands were killed in the 26-year conflict live in poverty and are subjected to social stigma.

Batticaloa, located on the country’s east coast, has a population of 525,142 consisting of majority Hindu Tamils as well as minority Muslims and Sinhalese.

Bishop Joseph Ponniah, a Tamil and head of the diocese, worries about its 32,000 war widows, who mostly have had to rely on income from odd jobs.

“We help them through a scholarship program to educate their children and conduct special vocational training to uplift their standard of living," said the bishop.

Seeds and other assistance are given to about 2,000 farmers in order to develop organic farming methods.

The diocese has 46,459 Catholics, accounting for 3.67 percent of the population. 

According to the Ministry of Child Development and Women’s’ Affairs, there are 89,000 war widows in Sri Lanka’s civil war-affected north and east.

Father Geron De Lima is the director of the local Catholic Caritas welfare organization that provides services across religious and ethnic lines.

This includes training in handloom weaving and Palmyrah palm handicraft production.

Between 15 and 20 women are given certificates after six months of training by the Sri Lanka Palmyrah Development Board (PDB), which then purchases what they produce.

Caritas pays the salary for instructors, Father Lima told ucanews.com.

Father De Lima added that women were empowered, through acquisition of accounting and marketing skills, to form small enterprises.

Many of the beneficiaries were non-Catholic, such as Hindus and Muslims.

The diocese also organizes inter-religious programs aimed at consolidating peace.

“If there are any misunderstandings we create an environment to come together and solve their problems through discussions,” Father De Lima said. 

He cited efforts to teach the Tamil and Sinhalese languages within the respective communities.

“If there is no language barrier then everybody can understand each other,” Father De Lima said.

“Sinhalese stay in Tamil community houses to learn and understand their traditions and culture.”

Bishop Ponniah said that the church has selected 100 students, from Catholic families who lost their fathers, who are provided with 2,500 to 10,000 rupees (US$16 to US$65) each month.

Another 25 students from non-Catholic families also have scholarships, said the bishop, who is the president of Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development in the diocese. 

“We do exchange programs between Tamils and Muslims and include counseling, meditation and cultural activities," he added.

Batticaloa in 2012 was formed to become the 13th diocese of Sri Lanka.

Earlier, it was a part of Trincomalee-Batticaloa Diocese.

Bishop Ponniah was born in 1952 and was ordained a priest in 1980.

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