We continue to support the local interfaith councils that were formed during our 2011-2013 program in Sri Lanka. Though these councils, community-based religious leaders are working in their communities to foster reconciliation, build cooperation among youth of different faiths, counteract misinformation and hate speech about minority groups, and use their influence to prevent new conflicts from escalating. These activities are partially supported by a percentage of tea sales from Dobra Tea-Northampton.
About the Program
Since 2013, these councils have enacted a range of important peacebuilding activities, each supported and facilitated with the Sri Lankan organization Sarvodaya Shanthi Sena:
In 2022, Sri Lanka’s national economic crisis intensified sharply, causing nearly a third of the population to become food-insecure. Activities in project communities in 2022 therefore focused on creating “Community Kitchens” based within preschools, to provide food to children who are at high risk of malnourishment. This approach involves parents and teachers themselves in the food preparation and distribution process—providing them with the permanent equipment as well as the food needed to prepare ongoing communal meals for preschoolers in food-insecure communities. These local community kitchens are part of Sarvodaya’s nationwide “We Are One” humanitarian initiative to address the ongoing food crisis.
In July 2021, local peacebuilding councils in Trincomalee and Batticaloa took action to support the mental health of children experiencing stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic. Community-based religious leaders collaborated across faiths to engage children in four different age groups in a friendly “7 day challenge” competition. A total of 840 children completed this independent program, which encouraged them to cultivate inner peace, express themselves, give respect across differences, and connect with nature and their community.
In September 2020, Sarvodaya Shanthi Sena partnered with district inter-religious committees and media experts to hold a one-day workshop for more than 50 selected journalists on ethics of journalism and social media. The workshop, “Reporting without Discrimination Among Diverse Communities,” focused on the special importance of media ethics and conflict sensitivity during times of stress—such as the COVID-19 pandemic and related inter-communal tensions. Participants in the workshop explored the impacts of fake news and hate speech, in both formal channels and social media, and the critical need for unbiased, independent reporting. They collaborated on case studies to practice unbiased reporting, and discussed examples of how they planned to apply insights from the workshop in their ongoing work.
In September 2019, interfaith religious leaders in Batticaloa—one of the cities where a church was bombed in the April terrorist attacks—worked with Sarvodaya Shanthi Sena to bring Tamil and Muslim youth together (the Tamil ethnic group includes primarily Christians and Hindus). The goal was to develop mutual understanding across the deepening religious divides, and engage the youth in preventing retaliatory violence. Many of the youth entered the dialogues with harsh preconceptions about the other group, fueled by hate speech and rumors that spread quickly through social media. Most participants had a transformative experience; at the end, 50 young leaders created an interfaith “youth circle” that plans to continue meeting monthly, and they plan to jointly implement two public, interfaith community projects to improve the living standards in area communities.
In 2018, we supported the interfaith councils to mobilize young religious leaders against the trend of inter-religious tension and conflicts in the Eastern Province. Sixty young religious leaders—Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim—took turns learning about each other’s faiths in a workshop format. The process strengthened understanding and built new friendship among young religious leaders across religious divides.
In 2017, we supported a 4-day residential camp for 50 youth (Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, and Muslim) to dispel mistrust among the participants and develop understanding. They analyzed the social situation in their area, identified issues that could help bring about communal harmony, and developed plans to help control and mitigate future conflicts.
In 2016, the local religious leaders, with Karuna Center’s support, brought 350 people together from diverse communities throughout Northeast Sri Lanka for a cultural exchange. Sinhala Buddhists, Tamil Hindus, Muslims, and Christians conducted joint ceremonies, led group games, and facilitated mixed-group discussions and created theater sketches about their similarities and differences. The event ended with a beautiful pageant of different dance and music traditions.
In 2015, interfaith religious leaders in Northeast Sri Lanka held an inter-religious drawing workshop and competition with students from ten schools that are segregated by religion and ethnicity in the district. It was a unique opportunity for children and their families to interact positively across religious divides, and the day was conducted with the blessings and advice of diverse religious leaders working in cooperation.
In December 2014, a diverse group of 102 visitors, led by 13 diverse religious leaders, traveled to the Sinhala Buddhist village of Karagahawewa—which had become ethnically isolated from its neighbors following the Sri Lankan Civil War. Ethnically Tamil members of a neighboring village had not yet felt comfortable returning to their pre-war homes. To begin mending relationships, and create the possibility of return for Tamils as well as break the Buddhists’ isolation, the delegation of 102 diverse visitors painted and refurbished a Buddhist temple, and cleaned and weeded the grounds in a show of solidarity. They also distributed 55 backpacks with school materials among the children, and held an impressive and well-received cultural show with performances from Tamil, Sinhala, and Muslim youth.
Also in 2014, 12 religious leaders who had participated in our 2011-2013 brought together 115 diverse children and their families, with Karuna Center support, for a daylong interfaith youth camp. The day began with an expression of unity in which Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Christian religious leaders blessed the program together with the ceremonial lighting of a traditional oil lamp. After some introductions, the youth performed dances and songs, across cultural traditions, for their families and neighbors. After lunch, the religious leaders involved engaged the kids in some friendly competition featuring a series of uproarious games and sporting events.
All of these activities have occurred against the backdrop of very intentional unity among religious leaders of great moral courage. Two of the religious leaders who organized the youth camp, for example, have been featured by the Rescuers Project for risking their own safety to protect the lives of people from other groups during the brutal Sri Lankan Civil War.