War-damaged Sri Lankan church is becoming a peace centre

By Ecumenical News International
August 25, 2007

The buildings of Christ Church along Jaffna's main road stand pock-marked by shell holes, as a grim reminder of the many pitched battles fought between Tamil rebels and Sri Lankan forces in this Tamil heartland on the northern fringe of Sri Lanka - writes Anto Akkara.

Built in 1871, the Anglican church is, however, now getting a facelift. New roof tiles have been put in place, and major holes in the walls are being patched up.

"We're converting this church into a war memorial, and it will be used as a centre for conflict analysis," the Rev S. P. Nesakumar, the archdeacon of Jaffna, told Ecumenical News International as he pointed to the severe damage inflicted by bombing and shelling during the 1990 and 1995 conflicts.

The Jaffna peninsula has nearly 30,000 war-damaged buildings, which residents say is a grim testament to the bloodshed in the Tamil heartland, where nearly 40,000 government security troops are deployed to uphold Sri Lankan sovereignty among about half a million Tamils.

Nesakumar says the aim of the project is, "not to repair the church to its original grandeur but to retain the scars of war," while repairing damaged portions to ensure its structural stability. The archdeacon told ENI that since the church was rededicated a year ago, pastors in Jaffna have met in the aisles of the bullet-ridden building every full-moon day - a public holiday in Sri Lanka - to discuss peace and ecumenical affairs.

The war-scarred church has also been the venue for seminars and workshops on peace and inter-religious concerns since it opened as a conflict analysis centre in April 2006.

"Everyone here is unanimous that this church should be used as a monument to remind the future generations of war," added Nesakumar.

A residential hostel is also planned for the church premises in order to provide boarding facilities for those who come to the peace-training programmes and workshops. Nesakumar explains that regular worship services will not be held at the church, but says that local people still treat it as a sacred place, and come to pray at the statue of Jesus that locals have erected in front of the church.

During 1988, when the church was packed with refugees of all faiths, a giant shell landed on the building but did not explode.

"Struck by the miracle, the people themselves put up the statue," says Nesakumar, who explains that it stands near to where the shell landed. Since then, Christians of all denominations have come to pray at the church, and bring flowers and garlands to lay at the feet of the statue.

ENI visited the church on 8 August along with a delegation from the World Council of Churches' Decade to Overcome Violence programme. On that day, Roman Catholic women were saying the rosary, and kneeling on the soil before the statue, with the sun beating down.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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