Sri Lankan priest disappears as civilian toll mounts

As fighting intensifies between the Liberation Tigers and Sri Lankan Government forces, a Catholic priest who witnessed an attack by government troops on his parish church has disappeared.

Fr Thiruchelvam Nihal Jim Brown of St Philip Neri Church in Jaffna disappeared on Sunday after he and a companion went to the church to check the premises.

The church and the predominantly Catholic neighbourhood have been virtually abandoned since the church was shelled on 13 August, according to Catholic News Service.

"We are very worried as there has been no trace of Fr Jim and his companion so far," said Fr Nicolas Jacob, Vicar General of Jaffna Diocese.

Fr Jacob said Jaffna Diocese has lodged complaints with the Sri Lankan navy, army, police and the International Committee of the Red Cross about the missing priest and his companion.

Fr MX Karunaratnam, chairman of the Sri Lankan church's Northeast Secretariat of Human Rights, said in a statement, "This mysterious disappearance has caused serious alarm among the clergy and the parishioners."

Just one week before the priest disappeared, 15 people were killed and many more were injured when a shell allegedly fired by government forces hit St Philip Neri Church, where hundreds of Tamil civilians and Hindus had taken shelter.

Fr Brown had rushed the injured to the hospital and later shifted refugees, including 300 families, to St. Mary's Church, about five miles away.

"It is appropriate to mention here that Fr Brown was appointed to Allaipiddy parish only a month ago to succeed the earlier priest who ... faced threats to his life," Fr Karunaratnam added.

The earlier parish priest, Fr Amal Raj, sought transfer from St Philip Neri after the 13 May murder of a Christian family and threats to his life from naval officers. Unidentified gunmen shot dead eight people in the house of one of richest men in the village; the man's Catholic daughter and her family also were killed. The incident occurred just hundred yards from the church.

Meanwhile, Eureka Street reports that another group of priests in Sri Lanka confirm what is happening on the Jaffna Peninsuala with the "isolated, unknown and silent death" of many people.

In a letter passed on to Eureka Street by Australian Jesuit Provincial Fr Mark Raper, the priests say that at least 90 civilians were killed in a six day period earlier this month, by aerial bombing, shelling shooting and crossfire.

More than 150 have been wounded. There has been at least as many non-civilian casualties.

About 25,000 people are internally displaced and are living in churches, schools, public buildings, and even under trees on the streets.

They are unable to move to secure places due to curfew and restriction imposed on the people by the security forces, according to the letter.

"All the supply roads to Jaffna are cut off and we are dangerously running short of essential goods like food, medicine and fuel. Shops are becoming empty; looting has started and within days starvation will be the destiny of the people of the peninsula," says the letter, which was signed by Oblate priest Fr JJ Bernard, who is Director of the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation in Jaffna.

He says the army continues to impose curfews to keep people as "human shields" against Tamil attacks by curtailing their movement.

"It takes hours to take the wounded to near by hospitals that are unable to meet the needs of the injured," he said.

"The governmental and the non-governmental organisations are unable to organise themselves because the relaxation of curfew that last for two hours is hardly enough."

Sri Lankan priest, companion disappear amid fighting (Catholic News Service, 24/8/06)
Jaffna heading towards "silent death" (Eureka Street, 24/8/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Jesuit Refugee Service

Sri Lanka ceasefire in tatters (CathNews, 11/8/06)
Caritas calls for pressure as Sri Lankan church bombed, schoolgirls killed (CathNews, 17/8/06)
Troops storm Church as Sri Lanka on brink of war (CathNews, 19/6/06)
Caritas calls for urgent mediation in Sri Lanka (CathNews, 27/4/06)

25 Aug 2006