At the big-picture level, a burgeoning debate in Sri Lanka over a Chinese-backed port project in the capital city could be seen as illustrating well-known tensions in developing societies between attracting foreign investment, and protecting both their ecosystems and their poor.
For Sri Lanka’s small Catholic minority, however, which has been on the front lines of opposition to the project, the controversy also illustrates the risks of being misunderstood in a society with a painful history of religious and ethnic tensions.
A nation of 20 million, Sri Lanka is divided among a majority Buddhist Sinhalese population and a Tamil minority, made up of Hindus and Muslims. Catholicism is only about seven percent of the total, but it’s the only faith with a sizeable following among both Sinhalese and Tamils.
Sri Lanka endured a grisly 30-year civil war that began in 1983 with an insurgency led by the “Tamil Tigers,” concentrated in the country’s north, often seen as pitting Buddhists against Hindus. The conflict ended in 2009 after the government launched an all-out military offensive.
As the country attempts to pick up the pieces, it’s scrambling to attract foreign investors such as a Chinese company looking to put $1.5 billion into a port construction project in Colombo, in exchange for a share of the ramped-up shipping trade the port is expected to attract.
The proposal has drawn fire from a cross-section of environmental, human rights, religious and trade groups, alarmed over its impact on ecosystems and also on the local fishing trade, which is expected to be significantly disrupted.
Catholic clergy and activists are well-represented in the opposition, in part because many of the fishermen who fear loss of their income are Catholics. In all, the work is expected to drain and reclaim some 660 acres of the capital’s shoreline.
“The project will have a severe impact on marine resources and fishermen’s livelihoods,” a local priest named Sarath Iddamalgoda recently told the news outlet AsiaNews.
“It will negatively affect 80 per cent of ordinary citizens,” said Iddamalgoda, a member of the Christian Solidarity Movement, one of the groups organizing protests.
For Catholics involved in the uprising, the key issues are those expressed in Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’, principally concern for creation solidarity with the poor.
In March, a group of almost 400 Catholics staged a Way of the Cross procession during Holy Week with clear environmentalist overtones, as a way of expressing opposition to the construction of the port.
“Those who participated in the Way of the Cross were really inspired by the teaching of Pope Francis,” said Iddamalgoda. “They reflected how they can practically see the love of God through the environment.”
For some Buddhist nationalists in Sri Lanka, however, that’s not how things look.
Recently a Buddhist commentator whose writings appear on “Lanka News Web”, a widely read Sri Lankan news site, accused Catholics of opposing the port proposal – as they had earlier opposed construction of a large-scale coal plant – in order to block economic development and thereby “Christianize” the country.
“This attempt to keep Sri Lanka poor is part of their strategy to evangelize and Christianize the country – for it is easy to convert the poor and get them to serve the Christian West and the rich, corrupt and immoral Catholic Church,” said the writer, identified as “Ratanapala.”
“This is part of the project initiated by Pope John Paul II when he said that 21st century is for the evangelization of Asia – the project to bring Asia into subservience of the Christian West and of the Catholic Church,” the commentator said.
The reference apparently was to a 1992 document of John Paul titled “Evangelization in Asia”, released during a 1999 trip to India.
The writer dismissed expressions of concern for environmental and economic justice by Catholic activists as the explanation for their position, insisting the Church’s history in the country does not inspire trust.
“Think of the utter devastation in Sri Lanka from 1505 CE onward!” the commentator wrote. “Think of the Catholic Churches now constructed over Buddhist Temples!”
(Portuguese explorers arrived in Sri Lanka in 1505, and for the next several centuries Portuguese, Dutch and Irish missionaries spread the faith, principally in the north and northwest.)
For their part, however, so far local Catholics don’t appear cowed by those suspicions.
“The Church in Sri Lanka is not opposed to the development of the country,” said Father Fr. Patrick Perera, vicar general of a region with the Archdiocese of Colombo, “but it rejects projects which, in the name of development, destroy fishermen’s lives and nature itself.”
Pope Francis visited Sri Lanka in January 2015, just ahead of a trip to the Philippines.