Sri Lanka priest in miracle escape

Two priests from Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, have left their parishes after threats and close calls with death as the local diocesan justice centre reports that up to eight people are being killed or abducted each day by gunmen.

Asia News reports that one of the two priests who remain anonymous for security reasons escaped owing to a miracle when local people screamed a warning.

The latest cases follow the recent "disappearance" of another Jaffna parish priest, Fr Jim Brown, and are thought to be a warning to the Church to stop its work for the civilian population, AsiaNews says.

As days pass without any news of Fr Brown, Church organisations in Jaffna say priests are coming under fire because they persist in defending civilians, who bear the brunt of renewed hostilities between the Sri Lankan army and rebel Tamil Tigers.

The church-run Centre for Peace and Reconciliation (CPR), based in Jaffna, said two priests - who remain anonymous for security reasons - were recalled to the bishop's house after they came under threat "especially from the security forces or those collaborating with them".

"The lives of these priests are in grave danger. They are accused of becoming the voice of the voiceless," the CPR said on 9 September.

"The only hope and consolation the people have is that the priests are with them. No one will be encouraged to speak for the people if the lives of the priests are at stake."

The CPR said one priest was accused of recording a statement with the police in relation to the disappearance of Fr Brown and Vimalathas, his helper.

The other priest "had a narrow escape when a white van drove to his parish house at night. Some people who had taken refuge in his parish church screamed to save the priest's life. The intruders ran away after people started to gather".

People in Jaffna have become petrified of white vans circulating without number plates that spirit people away: they are a sinister manifestation of a system of suppression operating in the town, the so-called "fifth force" (after the police, army, navy and air force).

"Cordons, searches and arrests have become very common," the Justice and Peace Commission of the diocese of Jaffna said in a situation report earlier this month.

"Four to eight people daily are killed or abducted by unidentified gunmen, most of who are seemingly [members of the] security forces, present everywhere, or who belong to their supporting groups."

The Commission said the Church posed an obstacle to "violators" because it spearheaded efforts to defend human rights: "The overall plan appears to aim at suppressing this leadership by levelling threats and intimidation, through actions like the disappearance of Fr Jim Brown and his helper."

Over 42,000 people have been displaced and an untold number have been killed since clashes broke out on 11 August in the ongoing civil war between the Tamil Tigers and Sri Lankan government forces.

Jaffna: two priests leave parish under threat (Asia News, 11/9/06)

LINKS (not necessarily endorsed by Church Resources)
Disappearances.org, Cyberspace graveyard for disappeared persons (Asian Human Rights Commission)
Asian Human Rights Commission

Sri Lankan priest disappears as civilian toll mounts (CathNews, 25/8/06)
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)

Fierce battles continue in Jaffna (The Hindu 12/9/06)
'White Van' squad abducts 8 civilans in Jaffna (TamilNet 11/9/06)
Amnesty International joins appeals for Fr Jim Brown (AsiaNews 12/9/06)

12 Sep 2006