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Church Center Stages Passion Play In War-torn Jaffna

Sri Lanka

March 31 2008

Amid war, a Church-run center staged a passion play to help Catholics reflect and find inspiration to change in their life.

"God, where are you? Why are children and women punished and killed in our country?" asked one of three narrators on a stage in embattled Jaffna, about 300 kilometers north of Colombo.

The passion play is a traditional part of Lent for Sri Lankan Catholics. This year the Church-run Centre for Performing Arts (CPA) staged Kaviya Nayakan (lord of history) at an open-air theater March 13-17. Jesuit Father N.M. Saveri, the center´s director, developed the script.

"It was an exceptional five evenings. Jaffna´s people have lived in hopelessness and wept for 25 years," said Alfred Savarimuththu, a retired bank officer. Savarimuththu, who watches the play every year, spoke with UCA News at the theatre´s entrance, holding an umbrella. "I can´t imagine producing it. It is magnificent, and in a war-torn city under war-time circumstances, and torrential rain to boot."

The civil war that began in 1983, when the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) launched an independence struggle against the Sinhalese-led government, has killed around 80,000 people, with many more displaced and evacuated. On the predominantly Tamil Jaffna peninsula at the northern tip of the island, the population has fallen to 600,000 from 1.5 million in the 1980s. Government forces regularly fire artillery shells at LTTE positions around Jaffna city.

"There are no public shows, no music, drama or folk dances, no art for the present generation," Gregory Philip Ferminus told UCA News. Instead, the Jaffna CPA coordinator said, "they see bloody violence, and listen to horror stories day after day."

Carmelite Sister M. Jeewanthi, principal of Don Bosco Mahavidyalayam, a Church-run school in Jaffna, agreed. "Children are exposed to unending violence and terror. Being formed in such an environment has a vicious effect," she told UCA News. "We have to be extra-vigilant."

The theater this year was a 100-foot-long (30 meters) with seating for an audience of 1,500 people, but more than 2,000 people crowded in to watch every performance. Priests and Religious joined Christian and non-Christian laypeople, many coming from afar and passing numerous checkpoints.

A team of around 200 artists and technicians staged the two-hour performances. They were shortened from the usual three or four hours and began early in the evening to beat the 9 p.m. curfew.

According to Ferminus, this year´s play had special features such as dialogue on the rights of children and women, accompanied by meditative music.

Over the five days, more than 10,000 adults and children came. And torrential rains that flooded many parts of the country did not disturb them.

"I watched three times. Thankfully, the rain ceased. Many said it was a miracle," said college student Alphonse Rajesh.

Sister Jeewanthi told the audience during a spiritual reflection: "People experience the play´s characters in their own life. Even Lord Jesus could not bear the pain at one stage, but obeyed God." The story of betrayal, denial, trial, torture, killing and burial contains important lessons, she said, especially for children.

"This was the first time the Church was allowed to stage the play during Holy Week" for many years, said Ferminus. "Due to huge demand from all faiths, the bishop was finally allowed on March 17, the first day of Holy Week."

The CPA, which has branches in every diocese, and some abroad, has produced different passion play forms since the early 1990s, modeled on Tamil literary forms. The center has units for children, youth, trainees and women.


(Accompanying photos available at here)