- Remarks by the Head of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka about human rights being a ‘new religion’ in the West, drew reactions last week
- “The need for Human Rights was an outcome of the marauding religious zealots of the Inquisition and the Crusades, where non believers were massacred en-bloc. Pity, the Cardinal always seems to get things wrong in trying to be a populist.” Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera
- Cardinal’s comments does not represents even the views of the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Colombo which he leads.
- “Inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world” says Pope Francis
- Pope John Paul II had described the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a “real milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity” and in 1995, that it “remains one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time”
- MP Namal Rajapakshe and his brothers had defied appeals from the Chief Prelates in 2013, not to hold their infamous night races in the sacred city of Kandy says Mangala must respect the Cardinals view.
- 2013 Pastoral Letter by all the Catholic Bishops in Sri Lanka, to which the Cardinal was also a signatory, has a chapter dedicated to human rights and has asserted that ‘any cases on the violation of fundamental rights need to be courageously looked into’.
The proclamation that human rights have become the ‘new religion’ in Western nations, expressed by the head of the Catholic Church in Sri Lanka, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith earlier this week, drew sharp responses, especially from those of the Catholic faith.
Following publication of the controversial statement, in a country that has a long record of human rights abuse over four decades of war and youth insurrections, and where thousands of families are still searching for loved ones who had disappeared during the unrest in the north and south of the island, concerned individuals took to social media to share their views.
In response to the firestorm of criticism, Secretary, Archdiocese of Colombo, Fr. Denington Subasinghe issued a statement saying the Cardinal’s message had been taken out of context. Those who listened to the full speech would understand its true message, the statement noted.
Addressing the gathering at the morning service of St. Mathew’s Roman Catholic Church in Ekala, last Sunday (23), Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith commenced his speech saying religion was growing distant from people’s lives today, and attendance at Sunday mass in several European nations has decreased to five percent. People who distance themselves from religion could be thinking that they would live eternally, His Eminence said.
“Therefore, human rights has become the new religion in Europe and the Western world,” the Cardinal said.
He explained that ‘God’s law’ addressed how people should live in harmony and respect each other thousands of years before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations.
“There were no human rights back then but people lived beautifully with love, respect, trust and belief in God. Human rights came into being recently- as if it is an extraordinary new discovery. Keeping it aloft we are continuously expounded about it,” the Cardinal went on to say adding, however, people in Sri Lanka had been abiding by religions for centuries.
He compared Europe’s approach to religion to wearing a coat, where they use it only when needed. This concept was creeping into our country too, he said, “Certain people in our country speak about a secular society. We all know that human life is not solely about food, drink and comfort.”
Drawing attention to an old Sinhala song ‘heta merunath hithata sapai ada joli karala’ he said certain people have this approach to life, but we also know that human life is short. If we only pursue pleasures in life, we will meet an unfortunate end.
“But if we adhere to the teachings of religion we do not need human rights. With religion we can reach beyond human rights. People who do not believe in religion depend on human rights,” he declared adding that religion alone consisted of human rights.
Ironically, his speech was in marked contrast with the views of Pope Francis who early this year, addressed Vatican diplomats in the Sala Regia of the Vatican Apostolic Palace. Pope Francis said the world must return to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in order to overcome conflict. He commended the 70-year-old declaration for “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world”.
Pope Francis went on, “For the Holy See, to speak of human rights means above all to restate the centrality of the human person, willed and created by God in his image and likeness..from a Christian perspective, there is a significant relation between the Gospel message and the recognition of human rights in the spirit of those who drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”
Several decades before this in 1979, Pope John Paul II had described the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) as a “real milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity” and in 1995, that it “remains one of the highest expressions of the human conscience of our time”.
Minister of Finance and Mass Media Mangala Samaraweera, who tends to champion liberal views, made the sharpest response against the Cardinal’s words, when he tweeted: “The need for Human Rights was an outcome of the marauding religious zealots of the Inquisition and the Crusades, where non believers were massacred en-bloc. Pity, the Cardinal always seems to get things wrong in trying to be a populist.”
This met with criticism from former president Mahinda Rajapaksa who condemned the Minister’s statement and questioned if Samaraweera’s tweet reflected the stance of the Government. He said that he condemns the Minister’s statement.
His son Namal also weighed in on Twitter, saying Sri Lankan leaders and politicians had always heeded the message and advice of religious leaders.
“His Eminence has made known his opinion on the matter and as a senior and a prominent representative of the Govt. @MangalaLK should learn to respect it,” the 33-year-old politician admonished Minister Samaraweera. Social media users were quick to point out that the young politician and his brothers had defied appeals from the Chief Prelates in 2013, not to hold their infamous night races in the sacred city of Kandy.
Speaking to Sunday Observer, Attorney-at- Law Thishya Weragoda said no person, not even a religious leader, should make such a remark.
“I can understand what the Cardinal was trying to say. He is saying that in a society where you perform your duties in a proper way there is no need to worry about rights. But saying that human rights is a new Western concept is an absurd argument,” the Attorney-at-Law said.
The Sri Lankan Constitution of 1978 incorporates a chapter on fundamental rights, the world officially recognised the importance of human rights with the launch of Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations in 1948, and can even be traced back to the Magna Carta, which is a Chapter of Rights acknowledged by King John of England in 1215.
Weragoda said in this sense it was not fair to downplay the importance of human rights. He added the Supreme Court hears hundreds of torture cases regularly even when Article 11 of the Fundamental Rights Chapter states, ‘No person shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.’
“What rights are we talking about? Even after the Fundamental Rights we were not able to eliminate torture,” Weragoda said adding that where religion has failed human rights have come into play.
Meanwhile, human rights activist and a Catholic from the Archdiocese of Colombo Ruki Fernando said Human Rights are universal, insists on freedom of religion and beliefs for all, captures fundamental teachings of religious and spiritual traditions about human dignity, equality etc., but also challenges discriminatory and oppressive past and present practices of religions including Catholicism.
He pointed to the 2013 Pastoral Letter by all the Catholic Bishops in Sri Lanka, to which the Cardinal was also a signatory, has a chapter dedicated to human rights and has asserted that ‘any cases on the violation of fundamental rights need to be courageously looked into’.
Fernando acknowledged the relevance and applicability of universally recognised human rights to Sri Lanka, and that promoting and protecting all human rights is a fundamental and integral vocation of all Catholics, along with others of different religious beliefs and those with no religious beliefs.
“I consider the Cardinal’s comments to be his personal opinion. I don’t think it represents even the views of the Catholics in the Archdiocese of Colombo which he leads,” Fernando said.