Basilica renovation runs into stormy seas

The renovation of the Tewatta Basilica of Our Lady of Lanka by the China Harbour Engineering Corporation (CHEC), builders of the controversial Colombo Port City, has started despite protests. In a statement to the country’s Catholic community, the Archbishop of Colombo, Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, has insisted that “any other projects in which the contractors are involved does not directly have any bearing on our decision to accept the offer of the donors”.

Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, Minister John Amaratunga, Business magnate Harry Jayawardena, Chinese officials and others seen at the ceremonial launching of work to renovate the Tewatte Basilica last Tuesday. Pic courtesy Daily Mirror

The Colombo Port City project, a massive land reclamation initiative off the Colombo coast, has run into stormy seas over environmental and other concerns. It remains suspended pending review and a comprehensive Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) has been ordered by the Government.
The Sunday Times is in possession of a letter from the Christian Solidarity Movement (CSM), an organisation of senior priests, nuns and lay people, to the Cardinal opposing the award of the renovation contract to CHEC. It alleges that the company is not only blacklisted by the World Bank, it is “notorious for violating internationally recognised rules and regulations concerning the environment”.
“This involvement of the Church with that notorious company could be interpreted as the Church’s tacit approval of the same company’s destruction of the environment by constructing the Colombo Port City which is ecologically and socially detrimental to the interior of the country and the fisher community in the coastal belt,” the CSM has warned.
The renovation project was discussed during a recent seminar conducted by CSM on Pope Francis’s latest social encyclical “Laudato Si” which, ironically, stresses the importance of conserving the environment. The CSM says some of its members have already witnessed coastal erosion caused by the project and lowering of ground water levels due to destruction of rocks in the country’s interior.
“In the past three months, fishermen who operate in the vicinity of the project, from which sand is now being excavated and transported, have lost fishing equipment to the value of more than Rs. 4 million due to damages,” it says. Sand excavation and disturbance of sediments have caused destruction to several breeding sites of fish.
“Thus, fishermen along the coastal belt from Marawila to Moratuwa have incurred grave financial losses and soon this will cause graver social issues,” the CSM states. Around 30 million cubic meters of sand and 16 million cubes of granite are needed for reclamation. This will have grave ecological impact, causing heavy damage to flora and fauna and during up water resources.
The Tewatte Basilica was built with contributions from all people, including the poor, and has stood as a monument to the poor. The CSM acknowledges that repairs are essential. “Our concern is about the means employed in repairing it,” it reiterates. Two massive protests were recently held against the Port City Project and attending it were Buddhist monks and hundreds of Christian clergymen and women.
The Church cannot make use of evil means to achieve good results, the CSM says: “Besides, this renovation of the Basilica with the funds of this Chinese company is not at all compatible with the spirituality of the Encyclical Laudato Si of Pope Francis.”
The Basilica was consecrated 41 years ago, in 1974. The Cardinal’s statement says the ceiling and dome were seriously damaged due to the cathedral’s high elevation and winds blowing in from the sea. Engineers had estimated that renovation would cost between 150 million and 200 million rupees.
It was decided to seek external funding as the Church in Sri Lanka had already collected contributions from the faithful for the visit of Pope Francis. A minister intervened to obtain the support of China, something the Cardinal termed in his statement as, “great news for us”.
Where the contractors were concerned, “it was a matter for the donor Government to decide”, the Cardinal says. “We did not get involved in that decision.”

(The Sunday Times, August 09, 2015)