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Sri Lankan minister attuned to ethnic issues

Many delegates may not have recognised one of the chaplains who conducted the induction and ordination services at Methodist Conference 2004. Rev Bastianpillai Prince Devanandan only took up his current position at Henderson Methodist Church, in 2003 although he served as a pastor in his native Sri Lanka since 1987. (Conference Chaplains Rev Keith Taylor and Prince Devandan pictured).

In many ways Prince represents the new face of multi-cultural Auckland. On Sunday mornings people from eight different cultures worship at his English-language services. They include Koreans, Indians, Malaysians, Sri Lankans, Tongans, Samoans, Black and White South Africans, and Pakeha New Zealanders.

Ordained in the Anglican Church of Sri Lanka, Prince initially came to New Zealand in 1999 do a Masters degree at St John’s College. Two years after he returned to Sri Lanka he realised the country’s politics and the church bureaucracy would make it very hard for him to work effectively so he decided to seek a position in Australia or New Zealand. Ultimately he received the supply appointment to Henderson.

“For a number of years I worked as a peacemaker in Sri Lanka’s ethnic conflict but I became disillusioned with the political set up. I was the executive secretary of the Peace and Justice Committee of the National Christian Council.

“This involved working with people in conflict zones, meeting with refugees and groups such as anti-landmine campaigners, and lots of travel locally and abroad. It was extremely taxing. I wouldn’t have minded if there was a chance of settling the ethnic conflict but when I realised there was no hope I thought I was wasting my time and energy.”

Prince says Sinhalese Buddhists make up 68% of Sri Lanka’s population. Tamils, who are predominantly Hindu, are 15%, and Muslims and Christians are each 7.5%. Christian churches are well placed to mediate in the conflict but in the past few years they have come under attack from Buddhist extremists.

Although fighting stopped in February 2002, negotiations between the government and Tamil separatists bogged down in April 2003. The situation is fragile, and Prince believes Sri Lanka could easily slip back into civil war.

For the sake of his family he is happy to be in New Zealand.

“The people of Henderson have been very hospitable and given lots of support to me and my family. My two daughters are in school and my wife would also like to enter the ministry.

“In addition to my church work I am a member of the Waitakere Ethnic Board set up by the Waitakere City Council. It has representatives of more than 15 ethnic groups and helps new migrants settle in New Zealand, advises the city council on ethnic issues, and provides a forum for migrants to express themselves.”

Because he comes from a society that has suffered ethnic division and conflict, Prince has concerns about some steps the Methodist Church of NZ has taken. In particular he wonders about the wisdom of establishing synods along ethnic lines.

“I don’t question the bicultural aspect of the Church but on the side of Tauiwi I am worried about ethnically defined bodies. All ethnic groups should have the space and freedom to be who they are within the body of Christ. Does this mean we should structure governance along ethnic lines?

“This is a question I am struggling with. Are we committing the sin of Babel instead of celebrating the Pentecost?”