By Srimal Fernando and Mizly Nizar
Vatican Diplomacy is one of the oldest diplomatic services in the world heading foreign relations of worldwide catholic churches. The current foreign policy of Vatican Diplomacy is directed towards the global South.
In this context the 1.2 million Catholics living in Sri Lanka have a major association with the Catholics worldwide. Sri Lanka’s diplomatic relations with the Holy See, the headquarters of the Vatican for the 1.3 billion Catholics spread across the globe, goes beyond 42 years. This significant diplomatic link paved the way for the establishment of Sri Lanka’s strong relations with the Vatican while opening a new page in the country’s foreign policy, bringing it closer to Western nations. The landmark events in Vatican Diplomacy were the visits to the island nation by Pope Paul VI in December 1970, Pope John Paul II in January 1995 and Pope Francis in January 2015.
On 21 April 2019, the South Asian island nation was shaken by the Easter Sunday suicide bombings that mainly targeted churches while claiming more than 250 lives. Following these events the visit by the Vatican papal representative proved to be of immeasurable comfort to the shaken Catholic community.
Speaking to media during his visit Cardinal Fernando Filoni said “I am here first of all to bring you all closer to Pope Francis” (Crux, Catholic Pulse news 2019). Four months after the bombings this solidarity was further strengthened by the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Head of the Church of England.
Such papal diplomacy over the years has been most significant to Sri Lanka giving a message that goes far beyond the Catholic religious discourse. It brings global recognition, international attention and hope to this small island nation. It shows the world that the country is a place where many religious communities live together while giving a message to the global foreign policy makers.
Going back along the corridors of history of the Indian Ocean island nation, Catholics came to Sri Lanka 400 year ago with the Portuguese in 1505. Since then the Portuguese, Dutch and the British played a major influential role in strengthening Catholicism and Christianity in Sri Lanka. This Western influence not only saw religious impact but also saw educational and political transformation through Western philosophy. With this the island nation saw the emergence of a new wave of liberal thinkers and the empowered new cultural awakening saw Catholicism institutionalised at the dawn of independence in Sri Lanka.
Going beyond culture and religion the Vatican diplomatic initiative through papal visits puts Sri Lanka on the international business platform paving the way for tourism, trade and investment. Evidence strongly suggests that when the need arose the Vatican and the global catholic community always stood for the welfare of all Sri Lankans. As such the Catholic Relief Services work in the island has focused on rebuilding lives after natural disasters and has helped those affected by conflict.
Following the 2004 tsunami, Catholic relief and development agencies such as Caritas Sri Lanka has assisted almost 60,000 people and constructed over 9,000 temporary shelters, 8,000 new homes, one hospital, 31 schools rebuilt, for a total of 1,600 students without any considerations of caste or creed (Caritas-SEDEC /Asia news Italy, 2008) .
Though one of the world’s smallest sovereign states, the Holy See has a wide diplomatic network and global outreach with 183 states. Sri Lanka being and Indian Ocean island nation strategically located at the international maritime cross roads has significant diplomatic influence in the West due its Christian community which is part of the wider global community.
Hence this new foreign policy shift can tap into economic and trade benefits with stronger security guarantees from the West for the islanders. Creative thinking is required to re-examine the bonds between the Sri Lankan state, the church and how these ethno-religious connections can be utilised to benefit the island nation’s foreign policy by tapping into the Vatican foreign policy agenda.
Reframing these Foreign Policy goals to enhance these century-old bonds between the Vatican and Colombo requires a strong political commitment and farsighted vision to take the nation through the next stages of nation building.
(Srimal Fernando is a Doctoral Fellow at Jindal School of International Affairs (JSIA), India and a Global Editor of Diplomatic Society for South Africa. He won the 2018/2019 Best Journalist of the year award in South Africa. Mizly Nizar is a foreign policy analyst and a former visiting lecturer at The Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies and the Open University of Sri Lanka.)