03/31/2008, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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March, the most difficult month for Tamils in Mannar

by Melani Manel Perera
Clashes between rebels and Sri Lanka’s armed forces have prevented many Tamil Catholics from celebrating Easter. The army suspects the Madhu Shrine might be a cache for weapons destined to the guerrillas.

Mannar (AsiaNews) – Threats, armed attacks, bombs, forced transfers and last but not least bad weather have sorely tested the residents of the diocese of Mannar in Sri Lanka in the month of March. “The situation is truly a disaster, total misery,” said Fr Santia Joycee Peppi, Caritas director in Mannar, in an interview with AsiaNews.

There are some 82,000 Catholics in the diocese of Mannar and in at least 6 of the 28 parishes people have not been able to celebrate either Lent or Easter, according to the Caritas official. For him blame lies squarely with Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa. “The man wants money, is power hungry and responsible for disasters,” the clergyman said. “On the one hand there is a struggle for liberation; on the other, there are politicians trying to keep their positions.” 

“I am very worried,” Father Peppi added, “for Tamil Catholics but also for Hindus and Muslims. They are all human beings to whom God gave this land.”

Based on his estimates at least 6,704 families in Mannar have been directly affected by a war that is driving people from their homes.

Caritas has tried to bring some relief to the population, providing temporary shelters to displaced people and offering training assistance, medical care and funeral services.

K. Kanagalingam, 54, is Tamil, Hindu and scared by the daily inter-ethnic clashes.

A Tamil Catholic woman echoed his sentiments. “We are shut up in refugee camps, forced to move because of the war, which should be over and replaced by peace. Many are dying even before the end of this sad odyssey.”

Fighting between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) intensified between 5 and 24 March. Some 500 rebels, 223 security forces and 50 soldiers lost their lives in bloody clashes.

In Mannar military operations continue as Sri Lankan forces try to take over a vast area.

In mid-March security forces wrote to Mgr, Joseph Rayyapu, bishop of Mannar, asking him to collect all weapons, including artillery pieces, which rebels have placed in the area around the Madhu Shrine. The letter reminded the clergyman that the “Madhu area is demilitarised and deploying weapons is a violation of international rules.”

For Bishop Rayappu the LTTE has not weapons near the shrine; instead rebels have visited the area to take part in religious activities.

But the Sri Lankan military will not accept that argument. They believe that Tiger rebels have deployed heavy artillery around the shrine in order to draw fire from security forces, cause damages to the church and thus provoke an international incident.

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