Bogus Historical Claims on Early Christian Presence in Sri Lanka

A Reply to Dr. Mirando Obeysekera

by R. Chandrasoma

It does not require much intelligence to note that Christianity is making great inroads into the Buddhist hinterland in contemporary Sri Lanka in a way quite unforeseen by our compatriots who ushered in the Sinhala-Buddhist revival of half a century ago. At that time it was believed that the religion of the Western Colonialists had had its day and that never again would crude blandishments and the unethical use of power be a factor in the spread of this faith.

We have lived to rue that day when the euphoric experience of a nation revived and a religion restored made us believe that such things would not happen again. Alas, a sea change in the politics and administration of our troubled land has made Sinhala-Buddhism once again side-lined, endangered and the plaything of those forces that seek to belittle its importance and question its historic standing as the binding culture of our people.

The campaign to make the people of Lanka turn against their own religion takes many forms ranging from the crudities of direct proselytism of the weak and insecure living in the margins of society to sophisticated attempts to whitewash and make historically respectable a religious enterprise with a vile record of brutality and violence that must make new-age apologists weep in shame.

It is necessary to record that Christianity was brought into our land by the Portuguese who had a strange notion that their 'belief in God and Jesus Christ' would be tarnished unless the unbeliever was converted into their religion hook or by crook. The invasion of Sri Lanka in 1505 by the Portuguese Conquistadors afforded them a wonderful opportunity to put into practice this dastardly doctrine to trample the infidel and lay waste his centers of worship.

Today there is much heart-burning among the more liberal followers of the Christian creed over this awful, unforgettable and bloody 'initiation' in the propagation of a faith that they wish to portray as the 'religion of love'. The need is dire because a great celebration is planned to commemorate in 2005 the completion of five hundred years of 'the Portuguese legacy of Christianity' in Lanka. With so inauspicious (and spectacularly bloody) first phase, the celebration should be by the other side the side that escaped total cultural destruction by an enemy that knew no limits to the horror and misery he could inflict.

Be that as it may, moves are very clearly afoot to 'sanitize' Portuguese Christianity and to make it appear that heroic sons of Lanka (at least a few of them) were devout Christians and that there is no inherent contradiction between being 'Christian' and being a 'patriot'. Indeed, a great effort is being made by maverick historians (for such people, history must be massaged to serve God) to set up fictional history of a 'Catholic Empress' in a land seething in anger at the brutal imposition of a religion and culture that its masses held in total contempt. Acknowledging the weakness of their claim, we see currently a new tack being taken by hard-pressed apologists the bizarre attempt to show that Christianity as a religion was 'established' in Sri Lanka long before the Portuguese spectacularly besmirched a record that was horribly tarnished long before the Eastern Adventure began.

One Dr. Mirando Obeysekera has made the claim ( See 'Divaina' May 2, 2002) that Nestorian Christianity had left its mark during the reign of King Moggallana ( Sixth Century AD ). This is a re-echo of what the noted author of 'Winds of Sinhala' Colin de Silva claimed decades ago that there was a strong Christian presence at the time of King Kassapa. While one cannot dismiss the possibility of a few early Christian travelers leaving an artifactual trace or two during their sojourn in a solidly Buddhist Kingdom, the attempt to blow up this evidential vestige as 'proof' of the antiquity of Christianity in Lanka is, clearly, motivated by factors that are unconnected with objective scholarship.

A full-page article in the Sunday Observer ( March 31, 2002 ) by Bishop Oswald Gomis is of the same genre. A stela (stone slab with inscriptions) found in Central Asia was supposed to give key support to the hypothesis that Christianity has had a respectable presence in Asia long before the vile Portuguese invaded these parts. One can understand the urgent need to 'refurbish' the less-than-benign image of Christianity in the non-European world through bogus historical claims but this flurry of press-reports is an indication that they scent success.

Our Buddhist public showed an amazing strength of character and vitality 40 years ago. Today they lack the energy and determination to beat off a resurgent Christianity that has the patronage of political leaders who, in an earlier age, would have been outraged by the duplicity and scheming of those who care nothing for the preservation of our culture and religion. Given this lamentable state of affairs, one can expect more bogus 'Christian' history claims in the days and months ahead.


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