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Rajapaksa to meet Pope to woo Catholic community

world Updated: Apr 14, 2007 13:12 IST
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Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is to see Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican next week, in an apparent bid to garner the support of the well-organised and influential Catholic community in his country, especially those in the Tamil-speaking and war-torn North-East.

Sources close to the President say that while he has the overwhelming support of the Sinhala-Buddhists (the single largest ethno-religious group in the island) he is somewhat weak among the Christians, most of whom are Catholics.

His long-standing and unabashed identification with the Buddhists has made the Christians and other religious minorities uneasy, though Sinhala Christians are fully with him at least on one issue - the issue of the rights of the Sinhala majority, and Sri Lanka's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

Elections and opinion surveys show that Rajapaksa is weakest among the Tamils, both Sri Lankan and Indian Origin Tamils.

Among the Tamils, the Christians (mostly Catholics) are the best organised and the most vocal.

Their international connections through the church have played a critical role in making Tamil nationalism, whatever the form or manifestation, acceptable in the West, especially Europe, where there is great sensitivity to humanitarian issues.

In the North and East, the Catholic Bishops of Mannar, Jaffna, Trincomalee and Batticaloa have been key players in the Tamil nationalistic movement, though their focus has been essentially on the humanitarian tragedies triggered by war.

They have been in the forefront of measures to alleviate the sufferings of the innocent civilians.

Sri Lankan governments have, down the years, looked upon the Catholic church in the Tamil areas as being tacit promoters of separatism and terrorism, because of their unwillingness or inability to condemn the excesses of the LTTE.

Their eagerness to point an accusing finger at the government and the Security Forces is touted as evidence of their bias towards the LTTE.

The President apparently believes that the Easter message of Pope Benedict XVI, in which he had equated the government and the LTTE and asked both to stop the violence and talk, is due to the influence of the Tamil Catholic lobby.

In government's view, this lobby has to be countered, and the Pope made to see its military operations in the correct perspective.

Liberation of Madu church

Rajapaka's visit to the Vatican closely follows a military campaign to liberate the Madu area in Mannar district in North Western Sri Lanka, which houses the famous St Mary's Church.

Catholics, whether Tamil or Sinhala, would certainly like the Madu Church area to be free of the LTTE and war.

The Sinhala Catholics have been complaining that the LTTE harasses them. As for the Sinhala Buddhist majority it would like the shrine to be brought under government control as this would be an expression of the country's sovereignty.

The military campaign to capture Madu has not succeeded yet, but there is no doubt that the government will resume the operations at the soonest.

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