A workshop for the Religious and Priests was held at the retreat house Lewella, Kandy Sri Lanka from 14th - 17th February 2011, with 31 people from the north, north west/east and the south of the country participating.
The arrival of the participants from the north was delayed due to bad weather conditions that prevailed in that part of the country. To begin, there was an informal sharing session on the situation faced by flood victims, the response of both governmental and non-governmental sources, the problems that persist and some of the causes of this disaster. This informal discussion was followed by an introduction to the events that would take place over the following two days.
In the previous meeting an exposure was conducted, which was seen as a prelude to this workshop. For this workshop the exposure formed an essential part of the program. Thus, seeing the work of the Human Rights Office (HRO) in Kandy and the parish of Ampitiya, where Fr. Nandana is the parish priest, would be conducive for a healthy debate on the subject of a ‘rights-based approach’. Fr. Nandana is also the director of the Human Rights Office in Kandy and so the workshop would be an ideal opportunity to pose questions such as, “Can the commitment to defending and upholding human rights be an obstacle to the work in a parish?" and "Will the parishioners object to the involvement of the so-called human rights work by the parish priest?" and "Can they be combined, and in which case ,what would be the contribution the parishioners would make?” With these in mind ,Fr. Nandana briefly outlined the work in the parish and the Human Rights Office.
The participants were taken to the HRO where they met the victims of various human rights violations, which included illegal arrest, torture, rape and disappearances. The victims were given time to narrate their stories and interact with the participants. All their stories were an indication of the harrowing experiences with the police, the judiciary and the prosecution system as a whole. They all pointed to the dysfunctional justice system that deludes them. Nevertheless, the victims expressed the opportunity provided by HRO to commence a new life, a new chapter in the face of insurmountable difficulties. The counseling programs, particularly the “Testimonial Therapy”, the livelihood initiatives, all contributed to starting life anew.
A reference was also made to the prison apostolate which began in the prisons of Kandy. It was explained, how with the collaboration of some of the prison wardens, in addition to various cultural activities being conducted, some of the pressing needs of the prisoners and their families were addressed. A lady from the deep south of the country, a wife of an ex-inmate who later became sick, explained how she has been able to commence her vegetables sales on a bike with the assistance given by the HRO.
Thus all the comments and remarks pointed to a confident ongoing struggle to lead dignified lives, despite the failure of the justice system. Sadly enough, the justice system, was found to be the major violator of human rights.
After assessing the immensity of the work undertaken, the main question in the minds of participants was how, and with whose help, can problems be resolved. It was at this point the Solidarity Group composed of a doctor, lawyers, counselors, and human rights defenders was introduced. Time was set aside for the opportunity of the two parties to interact. The Support Group members shared their experience of working with HRO. They described how they overcame their initial fear and from the process of working in human rights they have also developed an ability to promote rights and support the victims of various violations. The ability to defend the rights of victims was found to be the best lesson learned.
The participants were then taken to the parish where Fr. Nandana works. After a sumptuous meal, the group met with a few parishioners. The parish is of a mixed ethnicity with a simple majority of Tamils. In the past the two communities lived with a minimum amount of interaction. Fr. Nandana felt that a new beginning had to take place and it was his conviction that such changes must begin with the life of the community. A foundation, he felt, has to be laid for a caring community based on the belief in the dignity of persons. Various activities addressing issues such as water, toilets, schooling, lights, roads, which affect both communities were addressed through a collaborative effort. Once trust was established between the two communities, church and liturgical activities where both parties could participate were introduced. Furthermore, on certain days of the week, the mass is celebrated in both languages, thus facilitating participation by both parties. Judging from the experience-sharing of the parishioners, it was clear how the celebration of the Eucharist by both communities was viewed as a celebration of what the community lives in reality. Mass is an expression of a life lived and an aspiration for improving community life and its ability to share.
The exposure to the parish and activities of the HRO, served as the back-drop to share with the participants their own initiatives, problems encountered and observations they would like to make on the initiatives by Fr. Nandana. Despite the day being quite long, the participants wanted to continue well into the night.
There was a resounding appreciation for the initiatives of the HRO and the parish. Observations were made by a few participants regarding the continuity of these programs in the parish if Fr. Nandana is transferred. The overwhelming feeling was that parishioners are quite confident in the continuity of projects. All observations focused on two major dimensions: the work of human rights must include elements that promote a new life, and that liturgy must be an expression of what the community lives and aspires to be.
The following day participants received input from Fr. Reid who focused on “Guadium et Spes” and Philip Setunga on “Spirituality of carrying out the work of human rights”, attention was once again focused on the calling of the Church to safeguard the dignity of persons.
It is through the defense of human rights that the dignity of people can be safeguarded. This lead to a discussion on the significance of a war-widow and church/liturgical services, if her right to food, housing and the education of her children were not addressed. Whether assuring these rights for her entail a spiritual activity – an activity through which God’s image in that person is respected, upheld and protected.
Before adopting several action programs that will be implemented between now and the next meeting, activities to be undertaken by participants to ensure the right to food, shelter, education were covered during the meeting. Fr. Mariadasa explained the ‘study hall’ created for students in the village, whose huts are not suitable for studies; while Sr. Vijaya and Fr. Jeyabalan, explained the 'revolving fund' started with the war-widows to provide a small capital to initiate livelihood programmes.
Human Rights Office Kandy, Torture in Sri Lanka, Disappearances in Sri Lanka, Healing and Counseling
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