Sri Lanka, “The Pearl of the Indian Ocean,” can be described in superlatives. One of the longest documented histories in the world. Oldest democracy in South Asia. One of the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. First country in recorded history to have a female ruler. First modern nation with a female elected head of state. And, interestingly, the third most religious country in the world.
This Asian island off the southeast coast of India is reputed to have been King Solomon’s source for ivory, peacocks, and valuables, which he imported from the ancient seaport of Tarshish. An important stop on the Silk Road, Arab traders called ancient Ceylon “Serendip”, a Sanskrit term referencing the discovery of something by accident, which formed the root of the modern “serendipity”. Today, Sri Lanka, or “venerable island”, boasts one of the fastest growing economies in the world with over 60% of the gross domestic product coming from the service sector. However, severe income inequality and ethnic prejudice have driven large numbers of its citizens to seek work outside of the country. As a result, these populations are exploited, abused, and at times, enslaved at the hands of unscrupulous employers.
Ninety-nine percent of Sri Lankans say that religion is important in their lives, and the most recent civil war speaks to these strongly held beliefs. The war, waged over religious and ethnic divides, lasted from 1983 to 2009. And yet, despite efforts to preserve their religion and culture, significant increases in alcoholism, suicide, casual violence, and rape reveal a crisis in the belief systems to which Sri Lankans cling. Buddhism, the national religion, is protected and promoted, and while freedom of religion is guaranteed by law, violence and persecution against the 8% mostly Catholic Christian minority are not uncommon. As the number of Christians in Sri Lanka grows, we pray they continue to search for the pearl of great price – the hearts of the Sri Lankan people.