Sri Lanka Christians Concerned as Uncertainty Overshadows Presidential Poll

The fifth presidential election of Sri Lanka held on Thursday was marked with uneven turnout among regions.

The fifth presidential election of Sri Lanka held on Thursday was marked with uneven turnout among regions. Christians, meanwhile, expressed deep concern as candidates are uncertain on their social policies.

According to the Italy-based Catholic news agency AsiaNews, none of the two candidates have given a clear proposal to tackle the main social issues – poverty, ethnic conflicts, anti-conversion law – faced by Sri Lanka, on top of the post-tsunami reconstruction.

One of the presidential candidates is the current Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse of the ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) while another one is the former Prime Minister Ranil Wickramasinghe, leader of the opposition United National Party (UNP).

Sri Lanka has long been stricken by the tension between the country's predominantly-Buddhist Sinhalese government and Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels seeking autonomy for Tamil-majority areas in the north and east of the ethnically-divided island.

According to the latest annual international religious freedom report released by the U.S. Department of state, LTTE, which has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States since 1997, have carried out acts of violence. Christians, along with members of all other religions, were victimized though religious persecution has not played a major role in the conflict. More than 60,000 people have died in the 30-year long conflict from 1972-2002.

A peace deal made in 2002 under the intervention of Norway government, however, has been stalled. Therefore, many Sri Lankan has placed high expectation in the incoming president to activate the peace process and bring a new future to the country.

An official statement from the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Sri Lanka issued one week ahead of the election said, the next head of state “must be committed” to stopping “the cycle of violence and counter-violence which affects the north-east” of the country and offer “all religious and ethnic communities” the possibility of “participating in the peace process,” as quoted by AsiaNews.

"We need to keep in mind the urgent need to work for a peaceful resolution of the conflict that has divided the various ethnic communities," the Methodist Church echoed in voter guidelines it published on Nov. 15, according to the Ecumenical News International (ENI).

The statement from the Catholic Bishops also further criticized "the lack of an inclusive approach to the peace process" in both candidates’ proposals. AsiaNews reported that Rajapakse wants to restart the peace process with the LTTE to reach a deal on new bases whereas his opponent wants to resume stalled negotiations.

Roman Catholic Archbishop Oswald Gomis, head of the Colombo diocese that accounts for more than half of Sri Lanka's one million Catholics, accused the politicians for being conservative in presenting their comments because "they are more concerned about winning votes."

In the statement from the National Council of the YMCAs of Sri Lanka (NCYSL), one of the oldest public voluntary organizations in the country, National General Secretary Chrishantha Hettiaratchi thus "appeals to the all candidates contesting for the forthcoming Presidential Election to be fully and truly committed to hold a free and fair election" and "to make use of the election to address the burning needs of people in Sri Lanka," "rather than focusing on their own political agendas."

The poll on Thursday was made complicated as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) rebels have largely boycotted the voting in its control areas in the north-east Sri Lanka, according to AsiaNews.

Turnout rate in south-west areas reached 75 percent, compared to almost zero in among the minority Tamil areas, where the Tamil minorities intend to establish an interim self-governing authority, BBC reported.

According to the Ecumenical News International (ENI), the Rev. Kingsley Perera, chairperson of the National Christian Council of Sri Lanka (NCCSL) said, "This is one of the most polarized elections ever in our history. We do not know which way the results could go."

Amid all the uncertainty, Archbishop Oswald Gomis has been actively urging voters "to exercise their sacred [election] duty with discretion, prudence and foresight," ENI reported. He has placed a full page advertisement in a weekly magazine prior to the election.

Approximately 70 percent of the 19 million-strong Sri Lankan population is Buddhist, 15 percent is Hindu and only 8 percent is Christian. Almost 90 percent of Christians are Roman Catholics, alongside with Anglicans and other mainstream Protestant churches. Evangelical Christian groups have increased in membership in recent years.