Despite the earlier Easter terrorist bombings in Sri Lanka, a team of five of us travelled to the country as planned. We were to speak at a church workers’ conference and provide women’s and children’s ministry to local churches connected with the Lanka Evangelical Fellowship of Churches (LEFC). The team comprised Mark and Sue Stocker, Becky Northern, Hannah Marshall and myself, David Cooke.
Thankfully, the UK government did not advise against travel to the country until after we were already there. Following arrival, we felt comfortable that the security services were now doing their job. We received warm hospitality by the family of Pastor Jeyakanth, who had organised the trip.
The main purpose of the visit was a 5-day church workers’ conference held at LEFC headquarters in Sixth Mile Post, just outside Trincomalee in eastern Sri Lanka. There were approximately sixty men in attendance, representing most of the LEFC congregations. Some women and children also joined in the sessions.
The conference dealt with a number of important topics, including the doctrine of the Trinity, Old Testament geography, preaching from the Old Testament (with a particular focus on the Song of Solomon), and guarding Christian marriages. It was encouraging to receive feedback at the end of the conference from men who had been helped by the ministry, and particularly to realise what an encouragement it had been to them that we had still come, despite recent events.
Ladies’ Bible studies, children’s Bible lessons and fun activities also took place during the course of the conference. The two pastors in the team were privileged to preach the Word at a total of nine churches over the two weekends; children’s ministry took place at a further three.
Generally, it was a joy to see the work of the gospel going forward among the LEFC churches (which mostly comprise Tamil converts from Hinduism). However, many of them, particularly in rural areas, are poor and far from being self-supporting, independent churches.
Moreover, although there are some godly men involved in the leadership of these churches, many of them have little by way of education or reference books. This makes the church workers’ conferences an important resource for them. Pastor Jeyakanth organises two of these each year, inviting a number of pastors, mostly from UK churches, to lead them.
During our visit it was a solemn privilege to attend a memorial service for two of the children killed in the Zion Church bombing in Batticaloa. The Zion Church is not connected with the LEFC but Santhakumar, the father of the children concerned (a boy of 12 and a girl of 10), is a personal friend of Jeyakanth. His children usually attended the early morning Zion Church Sunday School before being taken to their own church service.
Over 400 were in attendance at the memorial service, many of them Hindus who regarded the tragedy as ‘bad karma’ befalling the family for leaving Hinduism. Others included professing Christians whose prosperity theology would not have served them well in coming to terms with the terrible events. Several took part in the service, and Jeyakanth himself preached from Revelation 14:12-16.
There is no doubt that the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in Sri Lanka have left the whole country very shaken. In part, this is because the Muslim population (about 8%) has never previously had a reputation for radicalism and violence. Furthermore, although it has a very different aim, the violence – combined with the resulting military checkpoints which were on all the main roads – has brought back unhappy memories of the decades-long civil war which ended barely ten years ago.
After services were abruptly stopped on the day of the attacks, they are now continuing almost as normal in most of the LEFC churches (albeit with police protection). Many still elect to stay away in fear of their lives.
We were also reminded that the more common threat to believers’ safety in Sri Lanka is from Hindu and Buddhist thugs, rather than Islamic terrorists. During the first days of our trip, we did some sight-seeing in the Hatton tea plantation region, where we had enjoyed the warm hospitality of Pastor Ranji and his family. Towards the end of May, after a church funeral of a believer from a largely Hindu family, and as they returned from a pastoral visit to the bereaved family, Ranji and his colleague Rajendran were accosted by a group of Hindu men who declared that they would not allow them to spread the Christian faith on their estate any more. They assaulted both men severely and attempted to strangle Ranji.
Both men were briefly hospitalised, but have since made good recoveries. The police traced the culprits, but the brothers did not want to press charges in order to preserve an open door for the gospel in the community. Nevertheless, incidents like this pose a real threat to the physical well-being of the Lord’s people in Sri Lanka. The country ranks 46th on the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians face the most severe persecution.
Sri Lanka remains a beautiful island where both parts of 1 Corinthians 16:9 apply: a great and effective door is open for the gospel – and there are many adversaries! Pray for the Lord’s people in Sri Lanka.
David Cooke, Pastor at Banbury Evangelical Free Church and Treasurer of the Open-Air Mission.