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Pope Francis pitches for renewed hope in a wounded world

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by Rajan Philips

On Saturday, October 3, Pope Francis issued the second encyclical letter of his papacy, in Assisi, Italy. Entitled “Fratelli Tutti”, or Fraternity and Social Friendship in its English translation, the encyclical is a call for renewed hope in a world beset by pathogens and prejudices, through sisterhood, brotherhood, and social friendship. The Pope travelled from Rome to Assisi to sign the encyclical at the tomb of St. Francis of Assisi, after whom the Pope took his papal name and from whom he draws spiritual and temporal inspiration to fight the dominant prejudice of our time targeting Muslims.

Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most venerated medieval Christian saints. Born to an Italian silk merchant father and a French mother, he converted himself from a wealthy and worldly young man to a spiritual poverello (little poor man), and at the age of 24 met with and managed to persuade the then Pope (Innocent III) to support a reform movement within the Church led by the so called mendicant orders. They were founded on poverty, humility, simplicity, and peripatetic preaching, and they helped rehabilitate a growingly decadent Church by re-identifying it with the life and sufferings of Christ. Francis of Assisi founded the Franciscan Order of Brothers and the St. Clare Order of Sisters.

The special relevance of Saint Francis, to the Church today and to Pope Francis, is in the inter-faith linkages that Saint Francis strove to create with his Muslim brethren during Crusades (1096-1271), the religious wars of the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1219, during the Fifth Crusade, Francis travelled to Egypt, crossing battle lines, to meet with the Sultan of Egypt, who graciously gave him permission to visit Christian sacred places in the Holy Land and to establish the presence of Franciscan monks in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. The Franciscan Order has been a continuous and constant presence in the Holy Land ever since.

It is to this inter-faith legacy of St. Francis of Assisi that Pope Francis constantly turns for inspiration and encouragement. It is not the only legacy of Saint Francis. There are other legacies – elevating tolerance over condemnation, inclusion over exclusion, fraternity over alienation, friendship over enmity, and nature conservation over destruction. Pope Francis draws from all of them in his leadership of the Church and in his messages to the world. Even the encyclical title “Fratelli Tutti” is a phrase that the Saint used to address the brothers and sisters of the Franciscan and Saint Clare Orders. And the encyclical recounts the meeting between St. Francis and the Egyptian Sultan, and the Saint’s instruction to his Brothers during the Crusades, that in dealing with Muslims (Saracens) and other non-Christians, they (the Brothers) were not to “engage in arguments or disputes, but to be subject to every human creature, for God’s sake.”

 

Urgency and futility

Pope Francis holds out as example the leadership Saint Francis showed 800 years ago in dealing with Muslims and other non-Christians, that Christians should eschew hostility and intolerance and embrace humility and brotherhood. What is wrong with this message in the current situation of – what the Pope calls – the “wounded world”? The encyclical is a spirited effort to provide a long and elaborate answer to that question. The Pope was already working on the text of the letter when the Covid-19 pandemic “unexpectedly erupted, exposing our false securities, and the inability of various countries to work together.” Without Covid-19, the encyclical would have been a lamentation and a call for action on poverty, racism, and violence, the chronic scourges of the early 21st century. It would have been a sequel to his 2015 Apostolic Exhortation, “Laudato Si” (Care for our Common Home), and his joint declaration with Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb of “The Document on Human Fraternity,” in Abu Dhabi on February 4, 2019.

Alas, within two weeks of the release of the encyclical came the brutal beheading of Samuel Paty, a French school-teacher in Paris, by an 18-year old Chechen-born French Muslim, underscoring both the urgency and the futility of the Pope’s message. Sri Lanka experienced the same horror firsthand and on a mass scale in the 2019 Easter bombings. The reverberations are still continuing not only at the human level of those who were victimized, but also at the political level of others bandying ethnic misgivings and given to mischief making.

 

Fratelli Tutti may not have much of an impact on the men of the cloth in Sri Lanka, but it shows up what the Pope commends as the Christian approach inspired by the parable of the Good Samaritan – whose imitation the Pope calls for among fellow Christians everywhere “in order to rebuild (our) wounded world” of which they are very much a part. “The decision to include or exclude those lying wounded along the roadside,” writes the Pope, “can serve as a criterion for judging every economic, political, social and religious project.” The alternative is the path of political revenge and legal retaliation targeting whole communities and victimizing innocent individuals for the crimes of a few desperadoes.

Elsewhere, the violent ISIS movement may have become dormant, but there are flashpoints of conflict everywhere in the Middle East. In his own maddening ways Trump has redrawn the region’s frontiers of conflict disregarding international law, agreements, and conventions, and emboldening similar actions by other countries in their own backyards. The Netanyahu government in Israel has got whatever it wanted from Trump – relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, new settlements in contested sites including the Golan Heights, and new agreements between Israel and Arab States further isolating the Palestinians, and thinks it can do whatever it wants in the Middle East.

In India, the Modi government followed suit in Kashmir, China snuffed out protests in Hong Kong while continuing to be heavy handed in its treatment of the Uyghur Muslims, Lebanon is left abandoned in permanent chaos, Belarus in permanent protests, while Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran are jostling for positions in proxy wars from Yemen and Libya, to Cyprus, and to the Caucasus states of Armenia and Azerbaijan. All of this in the midst of a global pandemic and its second wave.

The pandemic is nowhere as horrendous as in Trump’s America, where the people are also in the throes of a hugely consequential election. Arriving in the middle of a bitterly contested election campaign, Pope Francis’s encyclical has generated varying reactions among American Catholics. Liberal Catholics are reading the encyclical as a rebuke of Donald Trump, while conservative (Republican) Catholic commentators are calling it an overreaching “humanitarian manifesto” that is of little practical value even as it deviates from some of the traditional teachings of the Church. These criticisms are not inaccurate, but they are wrong.

 

Points of departure

For an encyclical, Fratelli Tutti is a long document, with eight chapters in 90 pages. A conservative American Catholic critic has commented on its “sheer length,” which at 43,000 words (in English including footnotes), is apparently “more than the Book of Genesis (32,046) and three times the size of the Gospel of John (15,635).” Much of it is also a recounting of the Pope’s statements and writings on human fraternity and social friendship during the seven years of his papacy. But the points of departure for this new compilation are in its timing, contextualization, and clear departures as well from some of the longstanding Catholic doctrinaire positions on private property, solidarity/subsidiarity, and justifying ‘just wars’. Like Francis of Assisi, Pope Francis is looking to embrace not the rich and the powerful, but the meek and the marginalized, the heretics and the outcasts.

Historically, as laid out in the 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum of Pope Leo XIII, written as a direct response to the spectre of socialism in the late 19th century, property rights have been divine rights in the eyes of the modern Church. In Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis falls back on anterior Christian experiences to declare that “the Christian tradition has never recognized the right to private property as absolute or inviolable and has stressed the social purpose of all forms of private property.” In the same vein, the Church has privileged individual subsidiarity over the solidarity of the collective. Francis emphasizes the value of solidarity, and potentially as a basis for rethinking the foreign debt obligations of less developed countries. He decries the market being celebrated as the panacea to satisfy all the needs of society, and in the context of globalized inequalities, he calls for strong and efficient international institutions.

Although written from a “Christian perspective,” the encyclical is “an invitation to dialogue among all people.” Without “dialogue and friendship in society,” people will drift apart and grow insensitive and indifferent to the difficulties and problems of one another, leading to conflicts and violent eruptions. The Pope advocates “the culture of encounter,” and stresses “the need for peacemakers, men and women prepared to work boldly and creatively to initiate processes of healing and renewed encounter.” To be successful, “every peace process requires enduring commitment. It is a patient effort to seek truth and justice, to honour the memory of victims and to open the way, step by step, to a shared hope stronger than the desire for vengeance.”

While “forgetting is never the answer,” there can be no closure to any upheaval without “forgiveness and reconciliation.” Francis calls for the resolution of conflicts through negotiation and the United Nations Charter, and decries the rationalization of military aggression by “all sorts of allegedly humanitarian, defensive or precautionary excuses.” Given the proliferation and the hugely destructive capacity of weapons, the Pope asserts that societies “can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. “

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Features

Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation

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By Jehan Perera

Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.

Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.

Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”

Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.

 

 

NEGATIVE RESPONSE

 

The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”

It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.

International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.

 

 

SEQUENTIAL IMPLEMENATION

 

In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”

As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.

The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.

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Features

Album to celebrate 30 years

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Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.

However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.

All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.

Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.

Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.

Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.

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Features

LET’S DO IT … in the new normal

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The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)

Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.

But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.

Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.

Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.

However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.

And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.

Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.

“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”

The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.

“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”

Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.

In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.

Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.

Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!

Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.

 

 

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