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Globetrotting monsignor heads to Sri Lanka as its new Nuncio

Apostolic Nuncio Joseph Spiteri will be ordained Bishop of conflict-torn Sri Lanka later this month. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

Apostolic Nuncio Joseph Spiteri will be ordained Bishop of conflict-torn Sri Lanka later this month. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli.

As Sri Lanka's ethnic conflict escalates and threatens the lives of thousands of civilians, Apostolic Nuncio Joseph Spiteri is preparing to travel there after he is ordained bishop.

Once he arrives in the capital Colombo, in June, his mission will be to help foster peace-building, respect for human rights and religious tolerance.

"Pope Benedict XVI has already asked for a peaceful solution to the conflict and maximum respect towards civilians who are trapped in the cross fire," he said in an accent that reflects the different countries he has lived in since he became a priest 25 years ago.

In fact, after having served in Panama, Iraq, Mexico, Portugal, Greece and Venezuela, it is very hard to place where Mgr Spiteri comes from unless you know beforehand he is Maltese.

He has just been appointed Apostolic Nuncio in Sri Lanka and, later this month, will be ordained as Bishop of the island a few days after he turns 50.

Every year Mgr Spiteri, who hails from Luqa, makes it a point to visit family in Malta to remain in touch with his roots.

"I like to think that wherever I go as a priest I am sharing a little of who I am and this includes my Maltese culture and values."

In Sri Lanka, about eight per cent of the 19 million population are Catholic.

Although the two ethnic groups in conflict are mainly non-Catholic - with a mostly Buddhist Sinhalese community and Hindu Tamils - there are Catholics among both of them.

"Since the Catholic Church has a long tradition in the country and has always administered education, clinics and hospitals it has a lot of prestige. Catholic Bishops are listened to, Catholics are well respected and the Church has a say. Even the government tends to respect the Church," he said.

Having said that, in dealing with such delicate matters as ethnic conflict, the Church tries to keep a low profile and follow the international diplomatic rules. It cannot interfere directly in internal government matters, he said.

The Church will make its concerns heard during meetings with government representatives but, in the meantime, will work in Sri Lanka to help civilians in crisis by offering education, care, shelter and guidance.

The conflict in Sri Lanka revolves around the Tamils' call for a separate state in the country's north and east. After nearly two decades of violence a ceasefire was signed in 2002 but tension started rising again in 2005 when President Mahinda Rajapaksa was elected and ruled out autonomy for Tamils. In January last year the ceasefire was broken and war raged again reaching a climax in the past weeks with hundreds of civilians reportedly dying in the crossfire between the government and the rebels.

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