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ICC Note:

Christians in Sri Lanka have paid tribute to a Buddhist monk who died recently calling him an important figure to promoting religious harmony. Tensions between Sri Lanka’s majority Buddhist population and religious minorities, including Christians and Muslims, often ran high which church and mosque attacks being part of normal life. Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, the Buddhist monk, often stood against these tensions and ultimately helped set Sri Lanka on a more tolerant path by backing a long-shot political candidate who is now the country’s Prime Minister. 

11/25/2015 Sri Lanka (UCA News) – Sri Lankan church officials paid a rare tribute to an influential Buddhist monk who died in November, calling him an inspirational figure who promoted religious harmony in an often divided country.

Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thero, who supporters say played a key role in changing Sri Lanka’s political landscape, died Nov. 8 in Singapore, where he was receiving treatment after heart surgery. He was 73.

On Nov. 23, Catholics in Sri Lanka paid tribute to Venerable Sobitha with a Mass at St. Thomas’ Church in Kotte, Colombo. It was a rare tribute in Buddhist-majority Sri Lanka, which has lived through a 26-year civil war and seen attacks on churches and mosques.

However, Catholics who knew Venerable Sobitha spoke of a man who transcended the faith divide. The Buddhist monk worked closely with the local church and priests in his neighborhood.

“[He] talked straight despite political or color differences,” said Father Leo Perera, a priest who attended the Nov. 23 service. “The monk showed how we can be involved in social and political activities without getting involved in politics or being carried away by political parties.”

Asked why Catholic priests have traditionally been reluctant to play such an outspoken role, he replied: “We have a minority complex.”

Venerable Sobitha was known for speaking out against corruption and for challenging his country’s leaders at a time when Sri Lankan presidents wielded significant power.

In the lead-up to the country’s January presidential elections, Venerable Sobitha and his organization, the National Movement for a Just Society, took a risk by backing an alternative candidate against Mahinda Rajapaksa, the powerful incumbent. Rajapaksa lost his seat in a surprise defeat, beaten by his challenger, Maithripala Sirisena, seen as a reformer who ran on a campaign promoting ethnic reconciliation. Observers saw Venerable Sobitha’s support as a crucial part of the victory.

Buddhists also attended the Nov. 23 church tribute to the monk. Venerable Aluthnuwara Anuruddha, the head monk at Rajamaha Vihara, one of Sri Lanka’s main Buddhist temples, stressed the need to continue Venerable Sobitha’s legacy of promoting interreligious dialogue and cooperation.

Offering an example of how the monk worked closely with the church, Venerable Anuruddha said that the temple willingly provided parking spaces for churchgoers during major events, while the church reciprocated the gesture as well.

The Nov. 23 Mass itself was an example of two faiths coming together — a fact noted in mainstream Sri Lankan society.

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