Colombo (AsiaNews) - The Colombo government has released 5 Catholic priests and 177 Hindu religious, with their families, detained in refugee camps in Vavuniya and Cheddikulam. The release occurred on the morning of August 26 and was only possible thanks to Msgr. Malcolm Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, who addressed the issue directly with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.
K. Thievendirajah, head of Caritas Sri Lanka or Sedec present at the event, told AsiaNews of the refugees euphoria at their release: "The Hindu religious leaderswere happy not only because they were freed, but also because now they can live together with their families and move freely". Thievendirajah added: "Everyone told us about the suffering endured, without food or freedom. The priests are very happy because – he said - now they can speak to, work, meet and serve their people again".
The Hindu Religious and their families, 573 people in all, are now travelling to many locations spread out between Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Jaffna and it will the church to take care of their resettlement. The five priests will instead return to their diocese of origin: Mannar and Jaffna. They are Fr. Francis Jude Gananaraj Croos, Fr. Edward Selvaraja Mariyathas, Fr. Alfred Vijayakamalan, Fr. Anthonipillai Anton Amalraj and Fr. Arulanentham Anton Steephan.
At the time of release, which occurred near the Air Force camp in Vavuniya, representatives of the Colombo government, the Church and the Hindu community of the island were present. Among the authorities there were ministers Pandu Bandaranayake, Rishard Bathiudeen and Sarath Gunarathna in addition to Basil Rajapaksa, brother and personal adviser to the president. Religious representatives included members of the All Ceylon Hindu Congress as well as Msgr. Rayappu Joseph, bishop of Mannar, Fr.George Sigamony, director of the Social and Economic Training Institute in Kandy (Setik), and Fr. Damian Fernando, director of Caritas Sedec, representing the Archbishop of Colombo.
The refugee camps were set up at the end of the conflict between the army and Tamil Tigers in May. They are home to about 280 thousand people and only the military have access to the area. The UN, the Church and local humanitarian organizations have long denounced the terrible living conditions in which the refugees are forced to live. Despite the assurances of the government, it is not yet clear when the Tamil refugees will be able to return to their villages of origin in the north.