targets as the country moves towards renewed civil war five years after a Norway-brokered ceasefire.
This week’s 5th anniversary of that document was overshadowed by reports that those who signed it — Sri Lanka’s government and the separatist Tamil rebels of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) group — no longer believe in the agreement.
The LTTE has fought for an independent Tamil homeland in the northeast since the 1980s, amid fierce resistance from the government backed Sri Lankan army.
Norwegian diplomat Erik Solheim, who authored the pact, told reporters that his country would do its best to salvage it provided the LTTE and the government are ready. "Norway is willing to go the extra mile to assist their peace endeavors at their request.’’
However there were no signs of that Sunday, February 25, after days of intensification of fighting and reports of a ground offensive into Tamil areas in the north by the Sri Lankan army which has kept up steady pressure on the LTTE after driving the group out of the eastern regions last year. The Sri Lankan navy reportedly sunk two boats suspected to be carrying rebels on the north-western coast, killing nine people.
Churches are increasingly in the cross-fire especially on the Jaffna Peninsula where they have provided shelter to hundreds of internally displaced people (IDPs), prompting retaliatory raids by the Sri Lankan army.
"One wonders if the attacks on churches are just a coincidence, or an attempt by the government to warn the clergy not to give protection to these defenseless people,” one source, who preferred to remain anonymous, told Compass Direct News agency this week. He said IDPs were often silenced by "intimidation" or "elimination," often in the form of "unexplained" disappearances.
"The church, unable to remain a silent witness, has raised its concerns with the outside world. The government of Sri Lanka has taken note and appears to have sought, directly and indirectly, to silence these voices by abducting and sometimes eliminating church officials," the source said.
CHURCH LEADER KILLED
Just over a month ago, on January 13, members of the Sri Lankan security forces gunned down 38-year-old Rev. Nallathamby Gnanaseelan, a married father with four young children, who led the Tamil Mission Church in Jaffna .
On the morning he was killed, Gnanaseelan had dropped his wife and daughter at a local hospital and headed towards his church, where members gathered for prayer, several Christian sources said. Before he could reach the church, he was reportedly shot in the stomach and head. His Bible, bag, identity card and motorbike were taken, and he was left lying in the street.
Security forces initially said Gnanaseelan was shot for carrying explosives but later said he was shot for not stopping when ordered to do so. Local Christians say the initial accusation was “a deliberate attempt” to frame the church official, who was a “respected member” of the National Christian Evangelical Alliance Clergy Fellowship in Jaffna, but not involved in politics.
There has also been concern over the fate of other church leaders, including Rev. Father Thiruchchelvan Nihal Jim Brown, also known as Fr. Jim Brown, and his assistant, Wenceslaus Vinces Vimalathas. Both men disappeared on August 20, 2006 and have not been seen since, media reports said.
Christians said the two men disappeared in the village of Allaipiddy , on Kayts Island off the Jaffna Peninsula , on August 20 after being followed from a navy checkpoint by six armed men on motorbikes. Navy commanders reportedly denied arresting the two men.
Brown and Vimalathas had gone to visit Brown’s church in the parish of St. Philip Neri, Compass Direct News said. The church and predominantly Catholic neighborhood were abandoned a week earlier, after the church was shelled on August 13.
A firefight had broken out on August 13 between navy officers and the LTTE in Allaipiddy, reportedly leaving 15 civilians dead and at least 54 injured in the crossfire. Many villagers sought shelter at the church of St. Philip Neri . When the fighting died down, Brown helped about 800 people move to St. Mary’s church in the nearby town of Kayts . News reports quoted some witnesses as saying he got down on his knees at the checkpoint to request a safe transfer.
Human rights watchdog Amnesty International said the commanding officer of the navy in Allaipiddy scolded Brown and accused him of helping the Tigers to build bunkers. Brown, however, said the church members had dug bunkers to protect themselves from the shelling and bombing of church premises.
Brown had replaced another priest, Father Amal Raj, who sought transfer from St. Philip Neri’s after the May 13 murder of a Catholic family in the village. Naval officers allegedly threatened Raj with death after he protested the shootings.
Security forces had previously attacked Alaipiddy and two other Catholic-majority villages, Vankalai and Pesalai, on June 17, 2006, news reports said.
During the attack, a grenade was reportedly thrown into Our Lady of Victory Church in Pesalai, where 200 people had taken shelter – killing one person and injuring 47.
"We were all inside the church when the navy and army broke in and opened fire. A grenade was thrown in through a window," Mariyadas Loggu told reporters. Civilians often take shelter in churches, viewing them as safe havens; in some villages, residents who are fearful of air raids sleep every night at the local Catholic church.
Catholic priests elsewhere on the Jaffna Peninsula have confirmed the deaths of many civilians through aerial bombing, shelling, shooting and crossfire – much of it carried out by Sri Lankan security forces, Compass Direct News reported.
Civilians are targeted by both army and Tiger rebels – with soldiers arresting and interrogating hundreds, while Tiger rebels have tortured and killed whole families suspected of siding with government forces, Christians said.
By September 2006, more than 200,000 people had been displaced in the northeast, with homes, schools and places of worship destroyed indiscriminately, according to several estimates.
Church officials have also complained about government blockades on the Jaffna Peninsula , cutting off vital food and medical supplies to civilians who are affected by, but not involved in the conflict, Compass Direct News said.
"In a civil war, the lines are blurred indeed," Godfrey Yogarajah, president of the National Christian Evangelical Fellowship of Sri Lanka (NCEASL), said in published remarks. He said religious liberty issues are “intrinsically linked” to what he called “the general climate of human rights abuse."
The NCEASL has called for urgent United Nations intervention. "Thousands of people are being arbitrarily arrested, tortured or ill-treated. We call upon the international community to raise their voices and prevent the massacre of the innocents in this country. The establishing of a United Nations human rights monitoring mission in Sri Lanka is an urgent need,” the group said. "The world cannot stand by and watch as this situation deteriorates, while every day, people pay with their lives."
Attacks on churches are not new to Sri Lanka . Since 2002, large mobs – often led by Buddhist monks – have led a string of attacks on churches in the south. Buddhist clergy have also campaigned for a national anti-conversion law, modeled on similar laws in India , to restrict the growth of Christian churches.
Two separate anti-conversion bills are still making their way through Parliament, although the renewal of civil war has brought a temporary halt to the campaign, commented Compass Direct News, which investigates reports of persecution. (With reports from Sri Lanka).