A ministry of reconciliation in Sri Lanka

Religious leaders in Sri Lanka meet ahead of a Puttalam interfaith leprosy event
Faith leaders meet ahead of an interfaith leprosy awareness event in Sri Lanka. L to R V Sundaran Raman (Hindu), Pastor Grashan Sanjeeva (Christian), Abdullah Mohammed Alim (Muslim), Kirologam Sudassi Thero (Buddhist) and SR Muzammil (Muslim).

In the aftermath of the devastating Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka, National Director Peter Waddup writes of The Leprosy Mission’s part in a ministry of reconciliation there.

On the morning of Easter Sunday, a joyous day when hope and faith are renewed, the radio news delivered the devastating blow of a string of suicide bombings on churches and hotels across Sri Lanka.

A country struggling to rebuild itself following the three-decade bloody conflict that killed tens of thousands of people had been struck again, this time the minority Christian community its target. Almost 350 were killed and upwards of 500 injured.

Having visited this beautiful country and being welcomed with open arms by its wonderful people back in February, I was heartbroken.

I had witnessed, with tears in my eyes, members of the different ethnic and religious groups in this still fragile nation – Singhalese, Tamil, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu – come together with the common goal of reaching out and finding and curing people of leprosy. If left untreated, leprosy is physically devastating as well as emotionally scarring and Sri Lanka is known to have a high rate of ‘hidden‘ leprosy cases.

A decade ago, my colleague Siân Arulanantham, Head of Programmes, was praying during her first visit to Sri Lanka as The Leprosy Mission England and Wales began working in a country still reeling from conflict.

Siân said she felt God say that our work there must be about peace. This confused her as she thought ‘obviously it’s about leprosy’. But we have since learnt that we needed to bring divided religious and ethnic groups together to have a significant impact on leprosy.

Meeting our partners in Sri Lanka, I heard some incredible ‘God moments’ where people who traditionally wouldn’t be in the same room together are now working together to find and cure people with leprosy.

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Vice-President and President of the Leprosy People’s Forum for Change in Sri Lanka, Amarasinghe and Nahamani, have bridged an enormous divide to work together.

As an illustration, the President of the Leprosy People’s Forum for Change, Nahamani, 73, is a Hindu Tamil working closely with his Vice-President Amarasinghe, 38, a Singhalese Buddhist.

It broke my heart to hear how leprosy sufferer Nahamani had lost two sons in the conflict and had been treated so badly, because of deep-rooted prejudice surrounding leprosy, that he contemplated suicide. But instead he channelled his grief into leading a leprosy screening programme in more than 30 villages in the Jaffna district of Sri Lanka. In one day I had the amazing privilege of meeting five children who had been diagnosed with leprosy and cured before any damage was done to their bodies.

Almost in a modern take of the Good Samaritan, Vice-President Amarasinghe was rescued by Rev Joshua, a Tamil and someone from the very community he despised when diagnosed with leprosy back in 2015. He now gives money he can barely spare to support children from the Tamil community who he once hated.

So the word my colleague Siân received from God all those years ago is being lived out.

It all began in 2014 when The Leprosy Mission and its partners began training pastors and church leaders about leprosy, the idea being they could offer practical help and advice after delivering a service, say, on Jesus healing the man with leprosy.

Initially it was a project run throughout evangelical churches but then, amazingly, other faith communities wanted to be involved from Anglicans to Catholics and then Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus.

This was hugely encouraged and resulted in nearly 10,000 people hearing about leprosy through 78 interfaith awareness events as well as another 20,640 people reached through 349 leprosy awareness Sundays. The work is growing and continues. Scores of people have been diagnosed with leprosy as a result with the sting of the disease taken out of the diagnosis for many thanks to the powerful nature of the campaign. In addition, prejudice between the communities is being broken down through new relationships and friendships formed between religious leaders.

We were devastated to learn that one of the three churches targeted on Easter Sunday – the Zion Church in Batticaloa – was where a leprosy Sunday service had been carried out in January. The blast killed 27 people, including 15 children, and injured more than 50 others.

With this catastrophic loss of life we weep as God weeps and our request for prayer is that the reconciliation between religious and ethnic groups will only grow stronger following the Easter Sunday tragedy.

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Why U Soe Win inspires me

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U Soe Win

James Pender, Programmes and Advocacy Officer (Asia), first met U Soe Win on a visit to Myanmar in 2016. Ever since, he’s been inspired by the way he works to effect change in his community.

We all have people we admire, whether they are well-known figures from the past or individuals from the present. They are important in our lives as they inspire us to keep going, overcome hurdles and press on towards the vision God has given us.

The person that has inspired me most since I joined The Leprosy Mission five years ago is U Soe Win. This is partly because I have got to know him a little better than some of the other people I have met overseas, having met him on three visits to Myanmar. I also had the chance to spend a week with him at a meeting recently. There’s a picture of him in the entrance area of our office in Peterborough, so I’m reminded of him every day when I come to work.

U Soe Win is a man who is very visibly disabled as a result of leprosy. He suffered terribly both from the disease and from the stigma associated with leprosy after being diagnosed in 1983. As a result, for many years he isolated himself, locking himself away at home to avoid the pain of people treating him unkindly when they saw his leprosy-affected hands and nose.

U Soe Win is not an inspiration to me because he has overcome social prejudices and now lives a ‘normal’ life in his village. Too often, it can seem patronising when disabled people are praised for ‘being able to cope with living a normal life’. Why shouldn’t they have that chance?

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With other members of the local disabled people’s organisation

No, I admire him because he is an exceptional individual by anyone’s standards. He’s an effective leader, heading up the disabled people’s organisation in his village that has now expanded and set up groups in neighbouring areas. The group has successfully petitioned the local council to make public facilities more accessible – for example, installing a ramp at the local school, which not only helps disabled children but also enables disabled adults to vote, as the school is used as a polling centre during elections.

U Soe Win is also a champion for the rights of others. When a young woman in his village was raped, he helped find the perpetrator and when the case stalled, he personally met with the judge involved to see that it progressed to a regional court, ensuring that the man responsible was jailed.

And his influence now extends beyond his local area. His hard work on behalf of his community, along with his positive attitude, has meant that U Soe Win has now had the opportunity to attend national and international conferences, speaking on behalf of people affected by leprosy.

It has been wonderful to see U Soe Win use his skills to become such an advocate for so many and I’m privileged to know him.

Success for leprosy champion Sharidah as village gains a water pipeline

Sharidah is a leprosy champion for her community and has recently played an important role in securing a big change for their lives.
Sharidah is a leprosy champion for her community and has recently played an important role in securing a big change for their lives. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

Your gifts to the CREATE appeal are training people affected by leprosy to become ‘champions’ in their communities who can effectively challenge discrimination and fight for change. Read on to learn more about Sharidah, one of our first leprosy champions, already making a difference in her village.

60-year-old Sharidah lives in a leprosy community in Chhattisgarh state, close to The Leprosy Mission’s Champa Hospital. She’s been living there since she felt forced out of village where she grew up, when her husband rejected her because of her leprosy. Sharidah had been suffering the effects of the disease for some time, but it was when they became visible, with damage to her hands and feet, that he threw her out and kept her from seeing their children.

Thankfully now they’re grown up, her children ignore the negative attitudes surrounding leprosy and often come to visit, making sure Sharidah is part of her grandchildren’s lives. For some years now she’s been part of a self-help group that has enabled her to set up a small grocery store and earn a regular income, but sadly, the stigma of leprosy still remains. Sometimes people don’t want to shop there because of her disabled hands and feet, so her customers are mainly other people affected by leprosy.

Sharidah in her shop
Sharidah in her shop. Photo: Hassan Nezamian

When we first met Sharidah, we soon realised she had a real passion for creating change in her community. She was keen to improve life for other people affected by leprosy because, as she told us, she wants to ‘give something back’ when The Leprosy Mission has done so much to help her in the past.

Sharidah was excited to learn about the ways the CREATE project would be working in her local area. The aim of CREATE is to combat stigma and discrimination and improve life chances for people affected by leprosy. Part of this involves training up people to become ‘leprosy champions’ who can become advocates for those around them. It was clear from talking to Sharidah that she would be an ideal leprosy champion for the village – and she was more than happy to help.

When we visited the village again recently, it was amazing to see first-hand the difference Sharidah has been helping to make. Her enthusiasm to see change happen means that this year, the community will have a piped water supply for the first time.

Around nine years ago, a new water tower was built on the edge of the community. It was built to supply the whole of the surrounding area, but the leprosy village was not included in this, leaving residents without a pipeline. Sharidah’s self-help group wrote to different local government offices seeking answers but received no reply.

Eventually, they were promised that work on a connecting pipeline would soon start, but once the work had started it was soon put on hold. Sharidah – now trained as a leprosy champion – and her friends organised protests at the water tower and got in contact with authorities once more to explain why clean water is something everyone should have access to and why leprosy communities should not be forgotten about.

Before long, they saw success. Work on the pipeline started up again and Sharidah told us she was confident that it would be completed this time. If not, she already has plans for a new campaign! When finished, the pipeline will bring water to a communal tap in the village and eventually, will pipe water into individual homes.

Sharidah’s success in making change for people affected by leprosy shows just how much of a difference leprosy champions have the potential to make – and what can be achieved by people standing on behalf of their communities against discrimination. Thanks to you, many more people like Sharidah will be trained as leprosy champions – and many more lives will change as a result.

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Sharidah with CREATE project staff