Buddhist teenager Shan Chandu was feeling positive after spending several days working with students from different faiths and ethnic backgrounds at a camp organized to promote religious tolerance
in Allagollewa. Ninety students gathered at this remote village in Kekirawa Electoral District
, about 46 kilometers from Anuradhapura in North Central Province, from Aug. 7-9 to learn how to get along despite their differences. "Children got to interact and share their stories and learn more about their religious, cultural and ethnic differences," 18-year-old Chandu, a Buddhist student at St. Anthony's College in Allagollewa, told ucanews.com. Sri Lanka is a multicultural country
where children study any of three languages at school, which can create communication barriers. Muslims speak Tamil whereas most Buddhists and Christians speak Sinhala. "But everyone at the camp was able to chat in Sinhala, which led to new friendships and new levels of understanding," said Chandu.
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The camp was designed as a three-day trust-building exercise at St. Anthony's College. It also featured 25 teachers from Thailand who came as observers to see what lessons they could take home. Chandu said he had mingled with Christians at the college but never had any close friends from Muslim communities before he attended the workshops put on by the camp, adding his social circle had since become more colorful and diverse. "I never realized how similar our thoughts and indeed patterns of thinking were until I met my new Muslim friends," he said. Father Damian Perera, the principal of St. Anthony's College in Allagollewa, addresses a group of young Muslims, Buddhists and Christians in front of a mosque on Aug. 8. The students shared their experiences, opinions and challenges after living together at the camp and said they had gained a deeper understanding of issues related to multi-religious harmony in the country. (Photo supplied)
Chandu described it as beneficial in helping him gain a deeper understanding of a range of issues related to multi-religious harmony in the country. He got to witness and experience the uniqueness and rich values of Muslim, Buddhist and Christian cultures through various activities and workshops. The Buddhist-majority nation is still wracked with religious intolerance, notably a series of anti-Muslim riots that began in February
in the town of Ampara and culminated in central Kandy district in March. The attacks in Kandy came in response to the brutal beating of a middle-aged, ethnic Sinhalese truck driver by four Muslim youths in what appears to have been a case of road rage. At least two people died in resulting riots with at least 10 injured and 80 arrested as Buddhist mobs attacked Muslim homes, businesses and places of worship, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. With memories of the riots still haunting the public, the camp was seen as a small but positive step forward in trying to heal Sri Lanka's divided society. "We want to help thousands of students know each other better so they can become agents of change in their communities," said Indika Sandamali Jayasinghe, who teaches at a government school and helped organize the camp. "The students learn to respect the differences that characterize them as Sri Lankans. Our program helps to instill in them a more positive mindset," the 38-year-old added. "School is the place where they start to become good or bad, destructive or peaceful, loving or hateful," she added. Buddhists make up about 70 percent of Sri Lanka's population of 21 million. Christians account for 7 percent, Hindus 13 percent and Muslims nine percent. Fathima Inosha, a 17-year-old Muslim, said many of the students had promised to keep in touch and take the positive messages they had learned back to their neighborhoods and villages. Some 25 teachers from Thailand also attended for the camp. (Photo supplied)
One Buddhist student who attended the camp said she was happy to maintain the friendships fostered over the past few days. "The problem is that, before, none of us probably trusted each other," said the young woman, who gave her name as Nirmal. "But we got a chance to learn about each others' culture. We even went to a mosque together." "Now the students will keep communicating with each other and, hopefully, live together more harmoniously." Nonetheless, meaningful religious harmony remains a multi-faceted challenge for transitional justice in Sri Lanka. Tamil and Sinhala communities are still divided after decades of systematic injustice, political violence and other failures of governance. Anuradhapura Diocese has about 12,000 Catholics out of a population of 1.3 million. At least 90 percent of the people who live there are Buddhists. Father Damian Perera, a Catholic priest and the principal of St. Anthony's, said many people in his community have struggled to get along with Muslim villagers who live in a neighboring community. "But this program has created an opportunity for us to build mutual trust and brotherhood regardless of race or religion," said Father Perera, who has served at the school for seven years. "Such programs are very important for reconciliation," he said, with an eye on future generations. "Even I had never visited a mosque during my seven years here prior to running this camp." Lin Yu Ju, a young trainee teacher who flew over from Thailand to attend the workshop, said many valuable lessons had been learned through observing the religious challenges Sri Lanka faces. "We got to see the students discussing their experiences, opinions and challenges," said the 18-year-old. Predominantly Buddhist Thailand has for years been battling an insurgency in its southernmost states bordering Malaysia by separatists fighting for their own Muslim enclave. But such divisions are not quite as widespread there as they are in Sri Lanka. During the interview with ucanews.com, Chandu was putting the finishing touches on an action plan he had drawn up so various schools could work together to create more peaceful communities. "The ultimate goal is national reconciliation," he said. "And to make sure we never repeat the mistakes of the past."