Sri Lanka’s perils
by K. Muraleetharan
The Lord reigns in Sri Lanka – in spite of the chaos and poverty! Not a single day goes by without violence and abductions, and the churches face all this and other issues. In this article we review some of the problems confronting believers in Sri Lanka and ask for your prayers.
The civil war
Civil war rages in the northeast of the island and the precarious situation often forces believers to recast their plans. Worship services and Bible camps have to be cancelled or postponed. Those worst affected are the Tamils recently evicted from their homes in Colombo.
Sometimes the more we pray, the worse it seems to get. From the human angle it seems there will be no end to this bloody war. It has displaced many thousands of people, including believers.
Sometimes pastors have to conduct worship services in refugee camps and under trees. The internal migration of believers, or their emigration to India, has forced some ministers to relocate their place of ministry. It has become very difficult, both spiritually and physically, to look after God’s people.
When these believers themselves are cast down – losing loved ones, property, land and animals, and hence their livelihoods – they find it hard to strengthen others.
There is a cultural tendency in Sri Lanka for the ‘sheep’ in acute need to expect help from the ‘shepherd’ to sort out all their problems. This in turn makes it difficult for pastors to concentrate on their main work – the ministry of the Word and prayer. Many ministers are appealing for help in coping with this desperate situation.
Recently a minister from Vavuniya, in the north, was abducted along with his children and others. There is still no news of them. Meanwhile another minister from Mannar was killed by a claymore mine while travelling. These incidents have raised genuine fears for the safety of God’s servants and have restricted their movements for ministry and preaching.
Even the most zealous preachers are reluctant to travel any great distance by public transport to evangelise or to teach the body of Christ. They are not to be blamed, since there are many checkpoints manned by the police or the armed forces.
These can double journey times. A journey which takes six hours by private transport took me almost twelve hours by public transport! This makes it really difficult for missionaries, evangelists and Bible teachers to do their work. Itinerant ministers and church planters like me are particularly affected. In a remote area when I was praying with the people, artillery shells were passing overhead.
Some places can only be accessed on certain days and some roads are closed after 10 pm. Major roads are closed and opened at random depending on the situation. One preacher was stranded for 10 days on his way from a state-controlled area to do pioneer ministry in an area controlled by Tamil Tigers!
Others find themselves in a quandary as to the best dates and times of their ministry. One evangelist has been unable to minister in a particular area for more than a year because the path between the Tiger and Government areas may be closed at any time, leaving him at the mercy of either authority.
The misery of the people
The people of Sri Lanka are desperate and hopeless, having no confidence in either the militants or the Government. Further factions among the militants add to the confusion and misery.
But this general loss of hope has provided gospel workers with an opportunity to share the gospel of eternal hope in Christ with those in refugee camps as well as those outside. Many have been impressed by the way believers from the East and West have helped Sri Lankan Christians in their need. And practical care manifested by Christians to their neighbours, especially in a time of war, has demonstrated the love of Christ.
There is less resistance to the gospel in northern and eastern Sri Lanka compared to the south, particularly since the Tsunami. But there are extremists called ‘Sinhala Buddhists’ who persecute the churches.
Some hard-line monks who are antagonistic towards the gospel sporadically stir up mobs to attack believers. Tamil Christians fluent in the Sinhala language, who once ministered and evangelised freely in Sinhala areas, are now prohibited from going there because of the security situation.
All the above problems, while they affect the churches, are external to them. But there are also internal problems.
Particularly since the tsunami, it has been difficult for pastors to discriminate between false and genuine conversions. Many who have been helped by compassionate ministries, including Christians’ family members, have professed faith in Christ. But is it real?
There is a need for ministries to concentrate on spiritual needs – being convicted of sin and turning to Christ from sin – rather than just felt needs (food, lodging, comfort, etc.). The ‘gospel’ of wealth, health and happiness must not replace the true gospel of grace and righteousness available in Christ alone.
Many so-called believers hop from one church to another in search of better facilities and provision. Regretfully, genuine ministers have suffered at the hands of pseudo-ministers because of this.
Sincere gospel workers have been hindered in preaching repentance and faith towards Christ because others have ‘recruited’ and baptised people without requiring repentance, and church discipline has become doubly difficult. Many wayward and disobedient ‘Christians’ have been given a warm reception by unspiritual churches.
Some ministers failed to keep a strict account in financial matters when generous gifts flowed in from the West after the Tsunami. This has brought church divisions and schisms which have exacerbated the unbelief of non-Christians.
Dishonesty among professing Christians, especially certain ministers, has been one of the main stumbling-blocks for unbelievers in and around the churches. Sadly, many Christians in Sri Lanka fail to be ‘light and salt’ in these matters, even though they may have shown Christian concern in some of their dealing with others. Because their lives contradict what they preach, people are not willing to accept the Christ who did not change their sinful lifestyles!
Genuine God-fearing churches and preachers have had a hard time explaining away the inconsistency displayed by fellow Christians.
Nevertheless, in spite of a multitude of problems Christians have been given many opportunities to serve Christ.
We are surrounded by security forces and we can boldly share the gospel with them. One day, in response to my constant speaking of Christ, someone from the navy asked: ‘How does someone receive Christ and become a Christian?’
I responded in my broken Sinhala and gave him some more tracts. Since I am an itinerant missionary I am often able to share the gospel with soldiers and police, whatever their rank, who ask for a lift.
Many hundreds of tracts have been distributed to such people. When, as Christians, we speak the truth in love they see the difference. Not only in our van but whenever we are stopped at a checkpoint we do not fail to distribute tracts.
We receive a positive response from many of the soldiers so pray for my Sinhala to improve! Some ask us to pray for them. Though we are sometimes irritated by the many checkpoints and demands for lifts, by the grace of God we turn these obstacles into opportunities to share the gospel.
No one who gets into our vehicle leaves it without receiving a gospel tract. This is true of the Tamil civilians also. One day a soldier hugged one of our believers who shared the gospel with him and began to weep as he told of his anxieties. Some ask for tracts themselves. I also play Sinhala gospel songs. So please continue to pray for these opportunities.
It is the Lord who saves. So with the strength and grace he has given to us we pursue our ministry amid all the difficulties. He who has called us is faithful. Trusting that the almighty and sovereign Lord has his elect in this part of the world, we continue to share the gospel unceasingly.
Prayer is needed that the gospel may reach every nook and cranny of the country, particularly the south, and that many will be saved through hearing it. Evangelical preachers here solicit your prayers, that they be kept from all the dangers, without and within. May the compassionate Lord have mercy on Sri Lanka and may his eternal purposes for this ‘tear drop’ island be perfectly fulfilled!