Several religious delegations making representations before the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC) emphasized that Sri Lanka is enriched by the traditions of four world religions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christianity.
It was stated that reconciliation following a prolonged conflict was difficult to achieve in the short term. It should, therefore, become part of a long term rebuilding exercise. Institutional arrangements will be required in order to keep reconciliation in focus, anticipate potential breaches of social harmony, and diffuse them before they can reach dangerous proportions.
The Government should make every endeavour to arrest the occurrence of incidents that threaten ethno-religious harmony. All religious leaders must unite to provide leadership, encouraging people of all faiths to act with wisdom and understanding, and to view the conflict and its aftermath from a perspective of tolerance and mutual accommodation. This should be achieved by emphasizing religious commonalities, and focusing on factors that contribute to a shared vision and unity of action for Sri Lanka, a country that we call ours.
In this context the religious delegations before the LLRC emphasised the constructive role that interfaith religious groups could play in promoting ethnic and religious harmony, by planning and executing such united and collective action.
" All religious leaders must unite to provide leadership, encouraging people of all faiths to act with wisdom and understanding, and to view the conflict and its aftermath... "
Religious dignitaries representing different faiths who appeared before the LLRC stressed the value of religion and faith in healing the wounds of conflict and fostering reconciliation. They pointed out that religious leaders and institutions could play a lead role in the process of reconciliation. It was stated that the spirituality and common human values founded and strengthened by the different religious teachings should be used as a force to promote inter-ethnic understanding and social cohesion. In this context spirituality was accepted as the ability to recognise among the diverse doctrines a common space and substance from which can emerge a shared vision to promote action for unity.
There was general acceptance by different inter-faith and religious groups who appeared before the LLRC that a mechanism to serve as an early warning system could be a useful preventive measure to ensure that communal or religious tension or friction did not lead to conflict, undermining law and order and efforts towards reconciliation and peace building. The LLRC recommends in its final report that the Government should facilitate the establishment of such a mechanism in consultation with inter-faith groups, with a mandate to serve as an early warning and early diffusing procedure.
A voluntary inter-faith group that made two submissions before the LLRC and working towards this end is The North East Inter-faith Forum for Reconciliation (NEIFR) which is constituted by the coming together of leaders from all religions practised in Sri Lanka. Domiciled in the insurgency-gripped area, and having lived through the thick and thin of the conflict these leaders now consider regaining inter-ethnic trust to be the main outcome of any reconciliation effort in this country
NEIFR in its submissions before the LLRC proposed an institutional arrangement for the purpose of maintaining ethno-religious harmony. In current times, when the issue of extremism is being discussed in several quarters, the recommendation of NEIFR is worth revisiting. The recommendation is for what is called a Committee of Conscience. It proposes the constitution – with the assistance of the people and without political patronage – a national committee rooted in spiritual guidelines of the right to life, and the sharing of common space and resources. This will be the apex body to advise Government on resource access and allocation, ethical harnessing of natural resources and function as advocates for safety of endowments to be passed down to the next generation. This Committee will also advise desirable changes to the education system to include spiritual teachings of human and family values and monitor divisionary and extremist publication or pronouncements that might compromise societal cohesion and incite divisions among ethno-religious groups living in the country.
Since its submission, NEIFR took the initiative to feel the pulse of the people of the North East for constituting such a Committee of Conscience recommended to the LLRC. It has placed on record that overwhelming support for a Committee of Conscience emanated from participants at meetings held in Jaffna, Anuradhapura, Horowapothana, Batticaloa and Colombo. In addition, there has also risen a call from persons in the regions mentioned above for the formation of such committees backed by the required legitimacy in every village in the country that could in turn be linked to the apex body so as to act as a check on brewing ethno-religious tensions at the local level.
A related and useful exercise carried out by NEIFR and worthy of replication in other parts of the country particularly in recent times of rising ethno-religious extremism is exploring, understanding, and responding legitimately to perceptional obstacles to national reconciliation. On April 29, 30, 2011, NEIFR held a convention at the St. John’s Church premises in Batticaloa with participants from different regions of the North and Eastern provinces of the country. A unique exercise ventured, among others, was to explore perceptions of each ethno-religious community towards the others. This was considered imperative in efforts to dispel suspicions between communities and work towards genuine national reconciliation. In this exercise, participants formed exclusive groups of the respective communities and each was tasked with recording impressions, perceptions and attitudes towards the other communities: the task was not to discuss religious precepts but rather discuss socio-cultural manifestations as practitioners of the religion.
While innovative, legitimate and efficient structures like a Committee of Conscience networked to regionally constituted inter-faith forums and councils is critical, attitudinal change must be fostered towards peaceful coexistence and enjoyment of justice, equality, human rights and security as Sri Lankans. However, such mechanisms and attitudinal change can reap a positive dividend only if policy pronouncement is made declaring that dissemination of ideas based upon racial superiority or hatred is an offence punishable by law and treated as acts of violence or acts that incite violence threatening individual justice, social security, and national stability.