Over the past eight years, the town of Batticaloa has been a bleak place. It was at one time or another a war zone, host to political maneuvering and violence, a makeshift refugee camp, the ravaged victim of the tsunami, and a place where economic depression made eking out a living a relentless struggle.
Throughout all this, however, the town has also been the site of a rare experiment in inter-faith harmony, remarkable in a country where religious identity and belief is often the cause of division rather than cooperation.
Since 2001, religious leaders and prominent community members representing Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam, and Buddhism have come together regularly to meet and discuss the most pressing issues of the day. Together, they formulate strategies to deal with everything from security problems to land rights to education.
Called the Inter-Religious Organization for Peace (IROP), the group's members say they have inadvertently become one of the few voices capable of giving representation to a community in dire need.
"In the Eastern Province, people are voiceless. So the inter-religious organization has become the voice of the people," said Father Chandron Chrispus, Regional Minister for the Anglican Church. "We are concerned about the people's freedom, the freedom to speak, the freedom to live."
The organization was born during what Father Chrispus described as a "crucial time of political uncertainty," when a ceasefire agreement between the government and LTTE leaders was in operation but many people in Batticaloa were suffering.
Under these trying circumstances, the members of IROP were drawn together out of a desire to protect the welfare of their people. Achieving this goal, however, required an unprecedented level of cooperation between themselves and their communities.
"It was difficult to get them together," said one leader of the organization. "But when the problems came, people had to figure them out together."
Since then, IROP's work has taken many different forms. After the tsunami, it meant providing food, water, and housing through whatever means possible, and eventually building over 100 homes for those families that had fallen through the government and NGO's gaps in tsunami aid and reconstruction.
In several instances when the Eastern University was shut down, it was IROP members who helped to negotiate its reopening so that students could return to their studies.
During the government military's initiatives to take the Eastern Province out of LTTE control, the organization helped to deal with the needs of thousands of refugees that overwhelmed the town.
Indeed, IROP is still working with the Mutur Displaced People's Welfare Society to return hundreds of families to Sampoor, who continue to live in IDP camps three years after they fled to Batticaloa.
"During war time," said Ven. Ampitiya Sumanarathana Thera, Chief Incumbent of Sri Mangalarama Viharaya Temple, "We kept pregnant mothers at the temple for safety. We brought them into the temple, into the Catholic Church, into the Hindu temple."The Thera is one of the few Sinhalese people in Batticaloa District and the only Buddhist monk. It would seem a tenuous life but he said that the people around him and members of the inter-religious organization have made his work of taking care of the approximately 600-year-old temple and working in the community possible.
"He is like a father to me," said Rt. Rev. Bishop Joseph Kingsley Swampillai, a member of the group.
"You need to have all the religions in one area to maintain the stability and solve problems in the community," said the Thera when asked why he continues to live in Batticaloa in spite of the daily struggles. "If I'm not here, the whole heritage of the country will not be represented. So I have to stay. If I give up and leave, there can be no end to this."
Today, one of the most pressing issues on the minds of IROP members is security-the community's and even their own. In many cases of abuse, IROP steps into file reports with the Human Rights Commission and represents the families involved.
"We know about cases of abductions and rapes across the lagoon among the farming population,” said Father Joseph Mary, Pastor of St. Ignatius Parish. "When families complain to the police, they say they can't do anything."
When IROP requested permission to hold an inter-faith religious procession on a public road it was granted by the GA of Batticaloa, according to P. Selvarajah, a member of parliament from 1994 to 2002 and an active member of IROP. At the last minute, however, the procession was denied access.
"The general feeling is, that these things are just matter of fact," Mr. Selvarajah said.
In early February, business owners in Batticaloa decided to keep their shops closed as a sign of solidarity with civilians affected by the war in the Wanni. But the government's Special Task Forces forced them to open, according to Father Joseph.
"Here, if you protest, woe to you," he said. "We ourselves are afraid."
Nevertheless, much of IROP's effectiveness stems from the united front they have been able to create in the district and the sense of solidarity they engender in the community.
"We organize seminars for schoolchildren," said the Swamiji of the Ramakrishna Mission. "The system now is Muslim schools, Tamil schools, Sinhalese schools. There is no chance for these schools to come together.
No other country has this type of system. Even markets are divided, there is no chance for the common man to meet together."
To counterbalance this, the members of IROP make a point of attending each other's important festivals. "We celebrate Hindu, Christian, Muslim and Buddhist festivals to bring harmony among the people," said the Swamaji.
""Everybody must think in terms of unity and variety. These are the laws of nature."
Although he is not a member of IROP, Father Harry Miller of St. Michael's School recalled a somewhat similar effort in Batticaloa during the 1970s and 80s, called the Council of Religions.
"We were very effective on some occasions because we could work together," said Father Miller. "Whatever [IROP] is doing, if they're doing it together, that's the advantage."
The members of the inter-faith organization said they strongly believe the nature of their work is critical and unique at this moment.
"We Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians, for the first time in the history of Batticaloa, in the history of Sri Lanka, we have gone to the temple, the church and the mosque to pray together," explained Father Joseph. "So that is a great breakthrough, on account of peace."
"This is not something we are doing for publicity," said the Ven Thera. "At least 100 years from now, all the work will be done. And all the work we do now will not be in vain."