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Southern Baptists hope Sri Lankans’
desire for peace brings opportunities

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (BP)–Almost his entire life, his country had been tormented by civil war.

Laksiri, 36, was only a toddler when the violence began in his South Asian homeland. Yet living in Sri Lanka’s southern port city of Galle, he’d only read about war in the newspapers. Never had it come to his doorstep -– until now.

Fighting between Sri Lankan government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, militant Tamil separatists, increased dramatically in October. For the first time in several years, assaults occurred far from the country’s northeast — and well outside its capital city, Colombo. This attack hit 70 miles south of Colombo in Galle, a commercial center and popular tourist destination where Laksiri works as a restaurant waiter.

“It is totally abnormal that this part of Sri Lanka would be involved in the Tamil dispute,” said Thad Crisler*, disaster relief coordinator for the Southern Baptist International Mission Board’s South Asia region.

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Suicide boat attacks have been attacking a Sri Lankan naval harbor in Galle. Crisler said he received reports that the strike involved more than one explosion.

“Those explosions were felt at area houses; they rocked pretty good. Then there was artillery fire,” he said. “The neighborhood was frantic. They described people as frantically running here and there.”

Formerly known as Ceylon, Sri Lanka is an island nation slightly larger than West Virginia located below the southern tip of India. In 1972, government forces and rebels broke out in a civil war that has scorched the land and the hearts of its people. Since February 2002, the country has experienced a cease-fire and multiple rounds of peace talks. Yet the government -– which has changed leadership several times -– and the rebel Tigers have not reached an agreement.

Another round of peace talks was scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 28-29 in Switzerland. But suicide bombs and deadly attacks have increased exponentially in recent weeks. More than 60,000 have died since the start of the conflict -– about 2,300 already this year, according to news reports.

“This is really the first time the area of Galle has been hit, so the whole city is wondering, ‘Is this a one-time thing, or will it happen again?’” Crisler said. “It’s a pretty big deal.”

Experiencing such attacks so near their homes might stir some Sri Lankans to reassess their spiritual lives — just as many did after the massive tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, swept away thousands of their loved ones.

“This may create an opportunity for people to understand that life can be short, and they need to be sure about what comes next. It may open up opportunities to share the Gospel as an avenue for peace or as an avenue of security,” Crisler said. “I fully expect those opportunities to come.”

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Fewer than 8 percent of Sri Lankans are Christians. Fewer than 1 percent of Sri Lankans are evangelical believers, according to a Southern Baptist representative.

“I really sense that there’s a lot that is about to happen in Sri Lanka spiritually,” Crisler said. “People need to pray, first of all that we don’t get in the way, and secondly that we do whatever part God has for us to do. Pray that all national believers would be ready and willing to seize the opportunities God puts before them.”

Though the escalating violence had not touched tourist areas until recently, those involved in the tourist industry -– whether they be restaurant waiters like Laksiri, travel agents, drivers or hotel managers –- already had been greatly affected.

“For three months, there’s been no work, no tourists,” said Chaminda, who makes his living driving tourists on excursions. “Tourists are not coming. Next month, tourist season is starting. This is a very big problem. There’s nothing to do.”

The tsunami pounded Sri Lanka’s coastal areas. Boats -– and bodies -– filling Galle’s main thoroughfare made the route impassible the first few days. Many tsunami survivors are still trying to recover emotionally and financially. For several months following the tsunami, relief workers renting local hotel rooms and guesthouses boosted the ailing economy. As time passes, relief workers are fewer. A lack of tourists worsens the situation further.

“These days my mother is admitted in the hospital. Treatments and medicine in Sri Lanka are very costly,” said Pradeep, who works at a beach hotel near Galle. “I am really having a hard time here. We do not have much guests in Sri Lanka due to the war.”

Laksiri, a tsunami survivor and a Buddhist, is still without a permanent home. His children lack schoolbooks. But when a Christian asked him what his greatest need is, his plea echoed that of many Sri Lankans.

“Peace,” he said. “We need peace in Sri Lanka.”
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*Name changed for security reasons.