Spiritual leader of English and Welsh Catholics visits Sri Lanka exactly a year after 30,000 people were killed by a gigantic tidal wave
BY CHRISTINA FARRELL CARDINAL CORMAC Murphy-O'Connor was expected to return from Sri Lanka today after an 11-day tour of the Asian island which was devastated in the Boxing Day tsunami of 2005.
The Archbishop of Westminster's visit to Sri Lanka, from December 26 to January 5, was timed to mark the anniversary of the disaster and to oversee the relief operation undertaken by the Catholic charity Cafod.
But he also took time out of his busy schedule to meet the President, Mahinda Rajapakse, for an hour-long discussion on the country's faltering peace process.
The trip was overshadowed by the murder of a leading Tamil oppositioa politician, Joseph Parajasingham, 71, who was gunned down at Midnight Mass in the coastal town of Batticaloa, 190 miles east of the capital Colombo. The killing reflected growing political and religious tensions in Sri Lanka between the Buddhist majority and the Tamil minority, which is seeking a homeland in the north of the country.
The Cardinal and his party, which included his secretary Fr Mark 0 'Tcole, his director of public affairs, Dr Austen Ivereigh, and the head of Cafod, Chris Bain. were forced to revise their schedule amid tight security.
More than 50 soldiers have been killed by the separatist Liberation ligers of Tamil Elam despite a 2002 ceasefire agreement between the government and the LITE.
Speaking to the press after his meeting with President Rajapakse, the Cardinal said: "One of the most positive things about the tsunami has been the cooperation between the different religious communities, which assisted each other in practical, human ways. I suggested to the President that he make use of those new close relations. The Catholics are very important to this process because they include both Singhalese and Tamils."
The Cardinal also offered the backing of the Church in Britain to local Catholic bishops in their desire for peace and promised to report to Prime Minister lbny Blair and Pope Benedict XVI on what he had witnessed.
Cafod has already indicated it will continue to support the Church in Sri Lanka "whatever happens". More than 200,000 people in the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean died in the tsunami and in Sri Lanka alone over 30,000 people were killed. Tens of thousands more were made homeless.
Accompanied by the Archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, the Cardinal travelled to Batticaloa on the east coast and Galle/Matera to the south to see the work which has taken place. He also made courtesy visits to senior Buddhist monks in ICandy, the centre of Sri Lankan Buddhism.
An estimated 90,000 houses are still needed in Sri Lanka, yet only I0 per cent have been built. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph last weekend the Cardinal said the pace of reconstruction appeared to be painfully slow. But as he journeyed across the island he experienced, first hand, the very human drama that continues posttsunami.
"I have been going from village to village opening houses in the east-coast diocese of Batticaloa. the focus of reconstruction funded by Cafod," he wrote. "Everywhere I have been handed keys to open brightly-painted doors of hope. The houses stand as symbols of the future among the temporary dwellings where the villagers have lived since the tsunami. I have heard many dramatic, moving stories and been deeply touched by the resolve and courage of these poor communities."
The Cardinal said there "was no doubt" that, in the weeks following the tidal wave, communities had come together in a remarkable way after years of conflict.
"I was very moved when the leader of a Muslim village where I was opening new Cafod-funded houses told me that many 'came and went, making promises, but only the Christians stayed with us and built us homes' ."
At the time of the tsunami, and in the months that followed, some people questioned the existence of God. Yet Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor said that was a question that he had not met during his overseas trip and God, he insisted, "wept too".
"The spirituality of the people whatever their religion is as present as the sea air and the dust, and the stories they tell of miracle survivals and amazing coincidences are put down to providence," he said.
"What will stay with me is the great tide of human love that that has followed the waves, dissolving barriers and bringing new opportunities for the future."