The study explores the role of religion and local faith actors in peace building and reconciliation from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam and Christian groups and denominations during the COVID-19 pandemic in Sri Lanka. A mixed method approach was employed in this study. As such, telephone interviews were conducted with a total of 44 key informants including priests and other faith actors to garner qualitative evidence and an online survey of 164 respondents representing different religions was carried out in order to explore their religious activity and participation in the pandemic response. Even though their participation in religious gatherings were highly restricted in view of the health guidelines and quarantine regulations in operation at the time, switch to digital media, TV, radio and loudspeaker sermons and chanting helped overcome the barriers to physical congregation to some extent. The study found that the religious leaders and faith actors made a substantial contribution to the pandemic response through their participation in humanitarian services, presentation of public health information in culturally sensitive ways, countering misinformation, building productive rapport with local level government institutions at the frontline to respond to the pandemic, and the donation of religious spaces for establishment of treatment centers and vaccination drives.
Their specific contribution in trust building, promotion of social harmony and addressing drivers of conflict was particularly relevant due to the focus of this enquiry. An outstanding achievement in this regard was successful mobilization of interfaith action for restoring the burial rights of Muslims who died of COVID-19, overturning a government imposed mandatory cremation of all COVID-19 dead. Similarly, a digital citizenship program developed by the National Evangelical Christian Alliance for Sri Lanka sought to counter the pandemic of hate by educating young people about responsible use of digital media, identification of fake news and use of digital media for cultivating a sense of citizenship and related human values and environmental concerns. These interventions point to the positive role religion can play in addressing adversity caused by the pandemic and related social crisis. Despite a majoritarian bias in decision-making at the national level, a productive relationship was gradually evolving among local faith actors and state institutions at the local level in responding to the pandemic collectively. It has given space for faith actors from different religions to express their views and beliefs in responding to the pandemic jointly across the religious divide. This remains an important avenue for discussion and deliberations among all religions to take health information, safety measures and counter misinformation on the pandemic and vaccination to the local communities. This indicates that effective engagement of religion and faith to fight the common crisis is likely to bring positive outcomes in the areas of reconciliation, respecting unity, diversity, and pluralism so that this can be taken as a useful point of departure for peace-building initiatives in future. Finally, the study points to policy changes at the national level needed to promote social harmony, development, and long-term sustainability in Sri Lanka. Nurturing of appropriate human values including unity and diversity, human rights, dignity of all individuals and social justice calls for fostering of suitable partnerships between state, civil society, and faith actors at all levels.