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Pope's Visit

Pope's visit puts a nation in quandary.

Pope John Paul will likely find a mixed reception waiting when he visits largely-Buddhist Sri Lanka this month, writes K.T.Rajasingham.

The Popes visit to Sri Lanka is expected to provide a test of relations between the Catholic Church and the Sangha and Buddhist clergies following comments about Nirvana in his recently-published book.

The Buddhist clergy and laity of Sri Lanka believe it is due to the pioneering efforts of their late King Devanambia Tissa and his successors that Buddhism was able to spread in Southeast and far East Asia, and dont take kindly to adverse comments that threatens their religion.

According to the Tripitaka a collection of Buddhas teachings, rules of monastic life and philosophical commentaries on the teachings it is believed that , Life is a misery and decay and there is no ultimate reality in it or behind it. The cycle of endless birth and rebirth continues, because of desire and attachment of unreal self. Right meditation and deeds will end the cycle and achieve nirvana the void, nothingness.

On the contrary, the Pope, in his book, Crossing the threshold of Hope, which has become a best seller, states: The Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather only point of this system. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods of deriving from it, have an almost exclusive soteriology.

Buddhism is in large measure an atheistic system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from the God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the which is bad.

The fullness of such detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world.

These comments by the Pope angered Sri Lankan Buddhists, who demanded he apologize. Instead the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Sodano, stated: We are all truly saddened that they {Sri Lankan Buddhists) have felt offended.. This statement was released by Nicholas Marcus Fernando, the Archbishop of Colombo.

The statement failed to assuage the Buddhists who comprise 70 per cent of Sri lankas total population of 18million and the issue has taken a new turn. Along with the lay Buddhists organizations, the four leading Buddhist prelates Ven Rambukwelle Sri Vipasi of the Malwatte chapter,Ven Palipane Chandananda of the Asgiriya chapter, Van Madihe Pannasitha of the Amarpura Maha Sangha Sabah and Ven Pottewella Pannasara of the Ramanna sect have urged the Sri Lankan government to take appropriate steps to rectify what they see as an insult striking at the core beliefs of the countrys Buddhists. The prelates and Buddhists organizations are demanding an apology from the Pope. This has put the government of Sri Lanka and the Roman Catholics, who comprises seven per cent of the population, in a genuine quandary.

Recent developments including the cessation of hostilities, appointment of monitors to ensure that peace is holding, and arrangements for further negotiations, has contributed to a general expectation that the Popes visit, his sermons and message would enlighten leaders and people towards the urgency and a necessity for a perpetual peace.

The Jan 20-21 visit to Sri Lanka will be the stage of the Popes 63rd overseas tour which also takes in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Australia. Tight security measures will be in place for his arrival in Sri Lanka with more than 15,000 policemen and paramilitary forces mobilized.

The government has declared Jan 20 as a bank and public holiday and the Pope will be welcomes as of a head of state with traditional gun salute and guard of honor. He will be received by the President Chandrika Kuaratunge.

On Jan 21, he will hold a mass and beatification ceremony for Father Joseph Vaaz, a Goan-born Roman Catholic missionary who arrived in Sri Lanka when the Maritime provinces were under the Calvinist Dutch rule. The Dutch were trying to stamp out Catholicism and drive the missionaries from the country.

The mass is to be held in Galle Face Green esplanade, a long stretch of beautiful seashore in the city of Colombo. More than 500,000 people are expected to participate and several thousand people from Goa have also indicated their desire to participate. More than 25,000 Roman Catholics from the Northern province of Sri Lanka an area controlled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), are also expected to attend.

Last month, Fr Alfred Alexander, the president of the Conference of the Major Religious Superiors of Sri Lanka, visited Jaffna and met the LTTE ideologue Dr. Anton Balasingham and few others to discuss issues connected with the visit of the Pope.

Fr Alexander told Dr Balasingham that the people of Jaffna should be given an opportunity to visit Colombo on the day of the Popes arrival. He proposed that that the land route from Jaffna to Colombo be opened up. Dr. Balasingham said the LTTE is not against people of Jaffna visiting Colombo on this particular day, but he was certain that not all those who went would return to Jaffna. It is reported that Fr Alexander was not in a position to give any assurance to the LTTE in this regards. He told Dr. Balasingham that clergies who are organizing the Popes visit could not take the responsibility of sending those people back to Jaffna. Therefore, in the absence of a safe land route and due to the indecisive ness of the LTTE in granting the necessary authorization for the people from Jaffna to visit Colombo, the participation of the Tamils from the northern province is still and unsolved issue.

Pope John Paul II has been acclaimed for his moral certainty and his success in reaching the masses with his message. But it is unfortunate that his comments of Buddhist religion and its precepts has angered the Sangha and the Buddhists of Sri Lanka.

The Nation - Thailand - 14/01/95.