Church visited by Pope defies Sri Lanka's religious debate

Sri Lanka is a seat of conservative Buddhism, but a church here visited out of the blue by the Pope is standing out as a symbol of religious harmony amid a heated debate on conversions.

Devotees of different creeds flock to the St. Anthony's Church even as the predominantly Buddhist nation grapples with proposals to outlaw "unethical conversions".

"People from all religions, Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, come here seeking favours," says church official Dudley Fernando. "It seems whatever they ask for is granted. Otherwise you can't explain this following."

Their faith in St. Anthony's power to work miracles was perhaps reinforced by a minor miracle that happened to the church itself more than nine years ago.

In January 1995, Pope John Paul II made an unscheduled visit while on his way to be received by President Chandrika Kumaratunga during an overnight trip.

"It was not a planned visit at all," Fernando said. "God knows how it happened. Even the priest here had gone to the (nearby) St. Lucia's Cathedral where the Pope was due to celebrate mass."

Buddhist and Hindu traditions have crept into the church, legendary for resisting persecution during Dutch colonial rule, which followed the Portuguese who introduced Catholicism to this island in the 16th century.

In one example, non-Christian believers wrap coins in cloth ribbons and tie them to the statues, as done by Hindus and Buddhists.

"We are Buddhists, but my wife has faith in the miraculous powers of St. Anthony," said Colombo businessman D. C. Wijesekara.

The Catholic church is also attracting a full house for every mass and its special Tuesday services are a huge draw.

All this is despite a debate on a controversial anti-conversion bill that many fear could lead to religious polarization in the already ethnically-divided island.

The all-Buddhist clergy National Heritage Party is competing with the Marxist-backed Colombo government to introduce laws banning the offering of inducements to convert Buddhists and Hindus in rural areas to other religions.

However the orthodox churches, which are also losing their flocks to fundamental Christian sects, have mounted a legal challenge to the bills which they fear could be used to persecute minorities.

"We are not against people changing their religion on their own free will," says Buddhist monk legislator Athuraliya Ratana. "What we are opposed to is the offering of cash and other material benefits."

That debate does not figure as thousands seeking spiritual solace silently stream from the church located in Colombo's commercial area of Kotahena and abutting bustling Colombo harbour.

The history of the church is traced to 1740 when a priest from Kochi, India, planted a cross by the beach and is said to have pushed the sea back, creating a sandbank to help local fishermen dry their nets.

That apparently put the fear of Moses into Dutch soldiers, who left the priest alone and spared him from the slaughter of Catholics being carried out elsewhere on the island by the Protestant Dutch rulers. The Dutch were eventually dislodged by the British in 1815.

The local community is highly protective of the church which has 15 statues of various saints. The statue of St. Anthony is the most prominent among them and highly venerated.

Catholic Press Editor, Manel Abhayaratna, says St. Anthony's underscores the religious co-existence in Sri Lanka despite legislative moves that could undermine harmony.

"It is a place that is influenced by Buddhist and Hindu culture," Abhayaratna said. "It is a good example of unity, people from all walks of life and all denominations go there."

Religion in Sri Lanka has been a uniting factor rather than adding to the ethnic divisions, although in recent years there had been a spate of hate attacks on Christian places of worship.

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers who are mainly followers of Hinduism have been battling the largely Sinhalese-Buddhist military for nearly three decades, but the conflict has no religious dimension.

Hindus consider Buddha to be one of their gods while almost all Buddhist temples in the country also have a shrine to Hindu deities, uniting the followers of the two religions.

A Hindu shrine in the island's south is venerated by Buddhists as well as other denominations with the faithful believing that that shrine too offers miracles.

Christians make up 7.5 percent of the 19 million population of Sri Lanka, where more than 60,000 people have died in a 30-year armed campaign by Tamil separatists.

Buddhism is practised by nearly 70 percent of the population. Hindus make up about 15 percent and Muslims about 7.5 percent. When it comes to seeking favours from St. Anthony, there are no religious differences