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Living the Eucharist amidst armed conflict: Reflections from Sri Lanka


Ruki Fernando

Coordinator of Law & Society Trust in Sri Lanka

  1. Introduction

Almost a decade ago, I read a book called “Eucharist and Human Liberation” by a Sri Lankan priest, Fr. Tissa Balasuriya.[1] It helped me to see the Eucharist as the offering of Jesus’s body and blood, for liberation of all peoples, especially the oppressed, and helped me to understand the Eucharist and its relevance to actual lives of ordinary people, in a way that more than a decade of Catechism and Religion classes didn’t.

In this paper, I try to share my own reflections on the Eucharist, as a lay Christian, largely based on my personal experience of interacting and trying to assist people living in despair and fear due to the ethnic conflict and war in Sri Lanka. Amongst these people that have shaped these reflections are:

  • Internally displaced people
  • Those held in detention
  • Those tortured
  • Family members of those killed and subjected to enforced disappearances
  • Journalists and activists fleeing from threats and intimidation, and their family members

The reflections are based on my personal experiences in the North and East (frontlines of the war) camps and other places where displaced people live,  detention centres and prisons, police stations, courts, on the streets and places where civilians have been subjected to all forms if abuses and repression.

Reflections are also based on the interactions and work I have been involved in with church leaders and Christian groups, as well as other religious leaders, civil society groups in Sri Lanka and abroad, diplomats, UN officials, media etc.

Bases on these experiences and reflections, I try to offer some perspectives towards a more authentic living of the Eucharist amidst armed conflict, which is common to many Asian countries.

  1. Background on the ethnic conflict and war in Sri Lanka


  • Ethnic and Religious groups in Sri Lanka


  • Major ethnic groups in Sri Lanka
    • Sinhalese are about 74%, Tamils 18%, Muslims 7% and Veddahs (Indigenous peoples) and others form about 1%.
  • Tamils consider themselves primarily two groups
    • Hill country Tamils (Those living in the hill country, sometimes referred to also as Indian Tamils or Estate Tamils)
    • Sri Lankan Tamils (They are the majority in the North, a large number in East and around Colombo, and also present in many other parts of the country)
  • Buddhists are about 70% of the population, Hindus about 16% , Christians about 7% (Catholics are the largest) and people of Islamic faith about 7%
  • Almost all Buddhists are Sinhalese
  • Almost all Hindus are Tamil
  • Almost all Islamic people are Muslim
  • Christians are both Tamil and Sinhalese


2.2 History and present status of the conflict

Ever since Sri Lanka gained political independence from the British in 1948, Tamil community has been subjected to various forms of discriminations and harassments in several areas such as language, land, education etc.

Tamil political leaders agitated peacefully for several decades for equality and form of governance that will not centralize power with the Sinhalese dominated central government in Colombo. However, these were ignored, and on some occasions, violently and brutally repressed.

In the 1970s, young Tamils started to form armed groups, and demands for a separate state (Eelam) for the Tamils began to emerge. Not all Tamils supported these, but there was indeed wide spread sympathy and support from the Tamil community. Later, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (widely known as LTTE / Tamil Tigers) became the most powerful and largest, after wiping off most other armed Tamil groups in violent clashes in the 1980s.

The LTTE soon turned to acts of terrorism, massacring hundreds and thousands of civilians in villages and in public places. They set off many bombs and claymore attacks in public places such as buses, trains and other public buildings, and also attacked the two of the most sacred Buddhist shrines in Sri Lanka. Buddhist monks were also massacred and Muslim community, who had been living in the North for a long time, was chased out of the North by the LTTE. The LTTE also became notorious for forced recruitment, including very young children. Many leading Tamil political leaders who espoused Tamil rights, but held dissenting views and criticized the LTTE were also killed.

The response of the Sri Lankan government and armed forces was equally brutal and repressive. Tamil civilians were targeted and it was clear that the Government suspected all Tamils to be LTTEers or their supporters. In 1983, the government allowed massive ethnic riots to take place, where more than 2000 Tamils are estimated to have been killed and large number injured and property destroyed. This started a massive of exodus of Tamils from Sri Lanka, in fear of their lives and convinced that they could not live in safety and dignity in Sri Lanka. Tens of thousands of Tamil men and women, many of them youth, were killed, subjected to enforced disappearances, detained without charges and tortured. Hundreds of thousands were displaced and severe restrictions were placed on freedom of travel and traditional livelihoods such as s fishing and farming.

Except during the limited respites offered when the government and the LTTE came together for talks, this trend continued, and till today.

As I write this, about 150,000 people are estimated to be trapped in a tiny piece of land about 4 square kilometers in the North in Sri Lanka. As I finally got around to editing this reflections,  on my way to Korea, I recall the countless times in the last three weeks that I had to stop, as I tried to in some way respond to urgent messages about yet another attack that kills and injures civilians, aid workers, doctors and priests. These are people literary waiting to be killed inside their hand dug bunkers.

  1. Eucharist in Sri Lanka – contradicting experiences


Eucharist is celebrated in different ways and different situations in Sri Lanka. Historically and today, but I will focus on today, based on my personal experiences.

In the past few weeks and months, the Eucharist continued to be celebrated in the Vanni region in Sri Lanka, where helpless civilians are being subjected to merciless shelling and bombing, including in hospitals and churches. The Eucharist is also celebrated by people who are displaced, people whose family members have been killed and disappeared, people who are being detained unjustly and their family members, people who have been tortured and families of children who have been forcibly recruited.

It is also celebrated by people who are rich and powerful, who are Ministers in the government, high officials in the military. (I do not know whether armed groups, such as the Tamil Tigers, who forcibly recruit children, set off suicide bombs and engage in many abuses, also celebrate the Eucharist, probably not)

In the same way, the Eucharist celebrated in different churches seems to be totally different.

I have joined Eucharistic celebrations in big churches in and around Colombo and other such big cities in Sri Lanka. One experience that I remember vividly, and painfully, is the Eucharistic celebration I joined last Christmas, in my parish (suburb of Colombo), where prayers were offered for military victories, but no prayers were offered for those who had been displaced, killed, injured, and their families due to military operations.[2]

On the other hand, in the north of the country, I have also celebrated Eucharistic celebrations in churches that gives shelter to the civilians when they flee shelling, bombing and other violence, and civilians were killed and injured. I had celebrated the Eucharist inside camps of displaced people. I have celebrated Eucharist during services offered for priests who have been killed or disappeared due to humanitarian and human rights work.

Here lies the contradiction of the Eucharist in Sri Lanka.

On one hand, the Eucharist has clearly failed to sensitize many Sri Lankan Christians about the suffering of their brothers and sisters, in the manner that Jesus was sensitive. The Eucharist had not even brought about small actions from many of these peoples, to help their suffering brothers and sisters, leave alone taking the radical step that Jesus took of sacrificing himself for the liberation of others.

On the other hand, far worse, is that Eucharist, which essentially promotes life, is even being used to promote death, destruction and suffering, and bless and justify exactly what Jesus chose to struggle against, injustice and oppression.

How else can I explain the prayers offered for success of military operations and victories, which have killed thousands, probably tens of thousands, since January 2009 alone? How else could some of those responsible for such horrible abuses, such as Government Ministers and officials, hang ranking military and police officers, continue to celebrate the Eucharist, Sunday after Sunday, and maybe even more often?

  1. “Doing it in his memory”: Bloody Eucharist in Sri Lanka

Despite the widespread contradictions of celebrating the Eucharist, I have also seen Eucharist coming alive in Sri Lanka, in a manner that closely resembles the original Eucharist and its spirit.

The original Eucharist was a forecast of a bloody and tragic event – the torture and killing of Jesus, in a manner that was contradictory to principles of natural justice and rule of law. Just as the Jesus sacrificed his body and blood to liberate oppressed people, Churches in Sri Lanka have also come forward to courageously live the Eucharist and give hope to affected people, amidst fear, suffering and pain.

Sinhalese and Tamil priests and lay people stood up for justice and paid a supreme price, and shed their blood, just like Jesus did. One priest, Fr. Michael Rodrigo, was shot dead as he was celebrating the Eucharist in 1987.

Since 2006, as the ethnic conflict intensified, and most Tamil people came to be suspected as “terrorists”, churches and some church leaders have come forward courageously to protect and assist those facing danger. In this process, churches and church leaders also became targets. As Sri Lanka again became a island of blood, tears and fear, Churches, especially in the North, also saw blood as they stood up and struggled to save lives and let people live in dignity. They shed their blood, and gave their lives, so that others would be saved and would live. Like Jesus shed his blood and sacrificed his body for liberation of all peoples.

Below are some striking examples:

  • In August 2006, Fr. Jim Brown, a Parish Priest (Jafna diocese), disappeared after being last seen at a Navy checkpoint. He had welcomed people seeking refuge from intense fighting to the church he was in charge of, and did his best to protect them. Later, he pleaded with the Navy to allow the injured to be taken to hospital. “If not for him (Fr Jim Brown) I would not be alive today, and many others would have been killed” was how several people described him to me, more than an year after he disappeared, amidst the ruins of the bombed out church. Along with Fr Jim Brown, Mr. Venesulaus, a lay worker also disappeared.
  • In September 2007, Fr. Pakiaranjith, (Mannar diocese) Coordinator of Jesuit Refugee Service, was killed as he was delivering aid to displaced people, travelling on a road known to be dangerous.
  • In April 2008, Fr. Karunaratnam (Jaffna diocese), who headed the North East Secretariat on Human Rights (NESOHR) was killed. He had been involved in documenting human rights violations, especially of Tamil people, and had been instrumental in maintaining an ongoing dialog with Sinhalese groups in the South of the country.
  • In April 2009, James Pathinathan and Fr. Vasanthaseelan (Jaffna diocese), were injured due to shelling inside the No Fire Zone declared by the Government. They had both opted to remain with the tens of thousands of civilians trapped by the warring parties, and being subjected to shelling and bombing, with no adequate food, medicine, shelter etc. Fr. Vasanthaseelan was the Director of Caritas Vanni branch, which had stayed back in the Vanni to provide humanitarian assistance the people, even when the Government compelled all UN and International NGOs to leave the area.
  • In June 2006, the Catholic Church in Pesalai (Mannar diocese) was subjected to grenade attacks, and an old woman was killed and many more injured. The church was sheltering thousands of fearful civilians who had sought shelter there as fighting flared and fishermen were killed.
  • In August 2006, the Catholic Church in Allaipiddy was subjected to attacks, and many people who were taking refuge from the intense fighting in the area, were killed and injured inside the church. The church building was also severely damaged.
  • In October 2008, members of the Christian Solidarity Movement, an Ecumenical group I was part of starting, was threatened by a Deputy Minister, for distributing leaflets about plight of displaced people and collecting aid for them.
  • In March 2009, Mr. Santha Fernando, Executive Secretary of the Commision for Justice and Peace of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka, was arrested at the airport. No formal charges have been made, but it is alleged that he was arrested due to his carrying information about plight of displaced and caught in the shelling.
  1. Limits of a Sunday Eucharist:


One of the striking things about the book “Eucharist and Human Liberation” by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya is his emphasis that the test of Eucharist would be not the number of times, places the Eucharist is celebrated, neither how beautiful the setting is nor how many participate in it.

Rather, Fr. Balasuriya asserts that the real test of an authentic Eucharist would be how it will motivate the participants to do what Jesus did – stand up for justice and struggle against oppression, to bring about the reign of God, here on earth, today, or in other words, liberation in concrete way to suffering people.

According to Fr Tissa Balasuriya, “The Eucharist has to be related positively to human liberation if it is to be faithful to its origins”[3] Fr. Balasuriya goes on to say that if there is to be truthfulness in the celebration, the Eucharist should deepen faith and commitment and tend towards effective building of unity amongst those who participate in the Eucharist and rest of society.

30 years after first published, I find Fr. Balasuriya’s thinking is even more valid today in Sri Lanka. In my experience, and sadly, Sri Lankan Christians and Churches are still very far from this. As I see it, for most Christians, Sunday, or rather one hour or so on Sunday, is the time to celebrate the Eucharist and business can go on as usual after that.

Business as usual means any kind of abuses can continue – shelling and bombing of civilians, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture etc. Some, such as Government officials, military, police are part of these, and others, including priests and lay people, are part of this by their absolute silence. As far as I know, there is no repentance for these abuses, and next Sunday, the Eucharist will continue!

Sadly, the Eucharist has become more of a ritual that a powerful and inspiring life experience of Jesus that we are all called to try and follow.

  1. Towards a Living and Action Oriented Eucharist

Indeed it is a gloomy scenario I have painted. But I can’t help but to this, as this is the reality.

However, I still see signs of hope. From these experiences in Sri Lanka which I have neen part of, seen and benefitted, I draw some elements. I have focused on efforts of Churches and Christian groups, but it must be understood that Churches are only a part of these efforts, there are many groups and individuals involved in these efforts.

It is these that make me believe that the Eucharist is still very relevant to the situation of armed conflict in Sri Lank. The challenge is to have a more widespread living of the original spirit of the Eucharist, in the specific context of armed conflict in Sri Lanka.

  1. A spirituality of contextual prayer:

Making our prayers relevant to what’s happening around us – bombing and shelling of civilians, hospitals, churches. Mass displacement, illegal detention, child recruitment, killings and disappearances etc. In Sri Lanka, Christian groups and churches have organized special prayers, liturgies on key issues affecting people, including commemorative prayer services remembering events such as ethnic riots, killing of priests etc. There have been attempts to integrate such real life problems into regular Eucharistic celebrations, such as on Sunday. One of the significant values of these services have been that they have served as a form of public dissent against the war and related abuses on civilians, at a time when dissent is minimal.

  1. Spirituality of witnessing to the truth:

Truth had come to be the one of the biggest casualties of the war. Propaganda of all armed actors in Sri Lanka had manipulated public reaction towards the war and suffering of the civilians, and this has also contributed towards insensitivity and inaction by ordinary citizens, including Christian and churches as institutions. Thus, finding the truth, making it known, and standing by the truth, rejecting untruths and half truths have become a key part of a spirituality practiced by Christian groups in Sri Lanka. Contextual prayers played an important role in this, and interventions such as testimonies in churches and other events, leaflets, briefing papers, blogs have also been used.

  • Spirituality of mobilization:

One of salient features of the present phase of the armed conflict in Sri Lanka has been that there is minimal resistance and public outcry to war, despite massive loss of life, injuries, displacement and suffering. This is also true in relation to the Christians and some church leaders, who have not shown much resistance to stop the war, and indeed, some support the war. It is in this context that efforts to mobilize people have become important. Christian groups have initiated, and supported marches, vigils and protests, despite threats and intimidations, but these are yet to reach levels that have made an actual impact.

  1. Spirituality of accompaniment and presence:

One of the most important roles Christian groups have started to play is a by opting to be with those most and directly affected by the war and violence. In the theatre of war, in the Vanni, priests and religious men and women, opted to stay with their people, despite repeated displacement and in particular this year, repeated bombing and shelling that has killed and injured more than ten thousand civilians in a very small area. Church based aid agencies Caritas and Jesuit Refugee Services, opted to remain with the people and serve them, even when the all UN agencies and International aid agencies to left the area on the orders of the Government, despite desperate pleas from the people. Bishops of the North, braved resistance from Government and military, and took the risk to visit people trapped in the conflict.

Christian groups also visits to detention centres, and meet families of those disappeared, killed, detained. Christian groups from South undertook solidarity and fact finding visits to the North to visit displaced people and churches involved in assisting them in the North. Religious sisters have now volunteered to be present amongst the nearly two hundred thousand people that had been displaced and now detained in camps by the Government.

Accompaniment and presence has offered solace to thousands of traumatized civilians and also offered physical protection.

  1. Spirituality of Protection:

Tamil people, even those in Colombo and other parts of the country distant from the war zone, live in fear. This is due to the fact that thousands of Tamil men and women, are routinely detained, tortured, abducted, and killed. It is in this context that Churches and church leaders continue protect these people, including by offering shelter, assistance to families of those in hiding, and even helping some people, especially human rights defenders flee the country. This is indeed, a direct response to the call of the Eucharist – promote and protect life.

  1. Spirituality of Helping:

Churches have also come forward to provide much needed assistance to those in need, in the form of counseling, material needs such as financial and material support. Last year, as the war intensified and when there was no mobilization amongst ordinary people to offer material support to displaced people, a few Church groups in the South went from Church to Church and to the streets, to mobilize public support. This was a radical step in that specific context, and inevitably, we were threatened by the Government as classed as terrorists by state TV .

  • A Spirituality of Conversion:

While continuing above initiatives, Churches also continued appealing and dialoguing to the key parties to the conflict – particularly the Government and the LTTE, to change their behavior and adopt more humane and peaceful means to resolve tensions and issues. In the recent past, five Bishops (Anglican and Catholic) made several appeals to remove restrictions on access to humanitarian agencies, urgent materials such as food, medicine, shelter and for at least a temporary ceasefire. At a more local level, church leaders had dialogues with military officials and with the LTTE on issues affecting civilians and churches. Church leaders have also engaged in advocacy at the international level, including with diplomats, with visiting high level officials, and in the United Nations in Geneva and New York.

  1. Conclusion:

Thousands of Eucharistic celebrations across the country every Sunday, and indeed almost daily, have failed to make Christians sensitive and respond to the tears, blood and fear of their fellow citizens, and indeed, fellow Christians.

Sinhalese Catholics in the south celebrate the Eucharist, but there is still no sensitiveness to the discrimination, harassment and fears that their Tamil brothers and sisters who celebrate the same Eucharist have faced for decades, particularly today. Government, military and police officials join Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays and other days, but continue their abusive behavior.

Priests who preside over the celebration of Eucharist, seem content to reduce the Eucharistic celebration to a symbolic ritual, instead of celebrating it as a significant junction of Jesus’s life and struggles for justice and liberation on earth. Priests seem unable or perhaps unwilling to engage with the communities they minister to, in order to make the Eucharist relevant to the context of armed conflict and suffering it has heaped on innocent civilians that Sri Lankan has been living with for the last three decades

Today, more than ever, the people of Sri Lanka need a authentic celebration of life giving Eucharist that can propel men and women, to go beyond themselves and join the struggles for justice to enable all people, particularly minority communities, to live in dignity as God’s children and to respond to the simple call of “love your neighbor”.

[1] Eucharist and Human Liberation, Quest Series 50, Published by Centre for Society and Religion, Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 1977

[2] See these reflections in full at

[3] The Eucharist and Human Liberation, 1979, by Fr. Tissa Balasuriya, chapter X, page 80