Archbishop Gomis: War is not over in Sri Lanka

India, May 21, 2009 - Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa declared an end to the nation's civil war in mid-May, but the head of the Sri Lankan Catholic bishops' conference said the war will be over only when the island nation is able to overcome its ethnic divisions.

"The war is technically over. But we can celebrate the real end of war only when we are able to overcome our prejudices and live together as one people," Bishop Joseph Vianney Fernando of Kandy, conference president, told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview from his home May 19.

"I was extremely happy to hear the president (Rajapaksa) say today that the word 'minority' will be removed from our dictionary," the bishop said.

The government said it killed rebel leader Velupillai Prabhakaran, ending an ethnic conflict that has claimed more than 80,000 lives. Prabhakaran, who founded the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the mid-1970s, led the group's campaign for autonomy for the predominantly Tamil areas of the Indian Ocean island.

Bishop Fernando said the conflict, which turned into a virtual civil war beginning in 1983, was caused by "the treatment of a section of our people (ethnic Tamils) as not fully Sri Lankan."

The country's Tamil-speaking ethnic minority accounts for 18 percent of Sri Lanka's 19 million people.

Many among the Sinhalese-speaking Buddhist majority believe that Buddhism and Buddhists should enjoy supremacy in Sri Lanka.

In an earlier statement, Archbishop Oswald Gomis of Colombo expressed sentiments similar to those of Bishop Fernando, saying "We have won the battle but the war is not ended."

"The war would end only on the day that we grow in nationhood, realizing that we are all one people in one country with equal right," said Archbishop Gomis.

"We have to realize the fact that we are a multiethnic, multireligious and multicultural community," said the archbishop, whose archdiocese accounts for more than half of the 1 million Catholics in Sri Lanka.

"As such, we are now left with the great task of nation building, forgetting our ethnic, political and religious differences," he said.

Bishop Fernando said the immediate challenge before the nation is "to take care of the quarter-million Tamil civilians who have been rescued (from the war zone) and help them rebuild their lives."

On May 19 Rajapaksa pledged the rapid resettlement of those Tamils, now in camps for internally displaced persons, but in a statement the same day Ann Veneman, executive director of UNICEF, said humanitarian agencies needed unrestricted access to the camps.

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