21 Apr Sri Lanka, Br Prabath: “We continue to pray and hope”.
They live in the four Franciscan friaries in Sri Lanka and share this time of great economic and social difficulty with the local people. There are nine Friars Minor currently engaged in pastoral activities and supporting the country’s neediest. Following a severe financial crisis and the shortage of diesel, gas and petrol, Sri Lanka is facing a period of widespread poverty and unprecedented street protests. Br Prabath Krishantha, OFM, president of the Franciscan Foundation of Sri Lanka, provides a picture of the difficult situation: “The situation is getting worse day by day. We have frequent power cuts, and there is even a food shortage. People are fighting in the streets for what is available. There are strikes and protests in all the cities: people are blocking the streets, setting fire to things. They accuse the government of not addressing the lack of basic necessities.
The period of severe crisis had already begun two years ago with the arrival of the pandemic, which had hit Sri Lanka’s economy hard, which was dependent on tourism and exports of goods (such as tea, coffee and other local products). “At the beginning of 2022, the crisis deepened further, and the prices of all products rose day by day. – Food, building materials, transport: the costs are rising every day, and it is difficult to make forecasts.
The consequences of the war in Ukraine have added to the current crisis. In fact, 45% of the island’s wheat imports come from Russia and Ukraine, while 50% of imports of soya, sunflower oil and vegetables come from Ukraine (source: AsiaNews).
The result of all this is a country in a critical condition, as Br Prabath recounts: “The price of flour has gone up again and will have an effect on all bakery products. For a piece of bread, last year it was Rs 40, while now it is Rs 110. The same goes for rice, sugar etc.”.
The friar now lives in the friary in Kandy (a large city in the centre of Sri Lanka). His fraternity takes care of the pastoral care of a parish and the formation of young people in the minor seminary.
“Since there is no gas, we had to start cooking with firewood in our kitchen,” says Br Prabath. The scarcity of raw materials makes any activity difficult. “A few days ago, I woke up at 5.30 am because I wanted to bring some construction materials from Colombo to Kandy, but I was four hours in a queue to get diesel. The diesel had run out by the time I completed the queue, and I returned home empty-handed,”says the friar.
The parishioners of Kandy are also finding it difficult to get by, as their salaries are often not sufficient to cope with the exponential rise in prices.
We are all experiencing this time of crisis,” continues Br Prabath, “but we continue to pray and keep hope alive. With the little money we receive from the foundation, we try to make it to the end of the month, looking after only our basic needs. We also try to support the poorest by distributing food to some families”.
Today, Christians in Sri Lanka make up only 6% of the population, of which 5% are Catholics. Yet, despite being a minority, the Church is a powerful voice for the poor. Thus, in the face of the appointment of 17 new ministers by Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – in an attempt to appease the population’s protests against the prohibitive cost of living – the Cardinal of Colombo, His Eminence Malcolm Ranjith, invited the current leadership to resign. Last week, the diocese itself called for a silent, peaceful protest, to which all religious congregations were invited. The Friars Minor of Colombo also participated, including Br Patrick of the Justice Peace and Integrity of Creation Commission (JPIC) OFM.
The consequences of such a severe economic crisis usually affect only the poor and the marginalised,” said Br Prabath, “but the middle class and the rich have also been affected this time. The lack of basic necessities, gas, diesel, petrol and rising inflation, in fact, unfortunately, affect all Sri Lankans. Businesses without electricity cannot open and go ahead; hotels remain closed because they have no gas for cooking,” explains the Franciscan friar. This is why people are in the streets protesting. There is also a minority that continues to support the government, but the majority of the population is unhappy. We, friars, continue to pray”.