02/04/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA - VATICAN

Rajapaksa to apostolic nuncio: get priests out of conflict zone

Melani Manel Perera
The religious live with the hundreds of refugees in the four districts that are still in the theater of conflict. The government says that victory over the Tamil Tigers is close, and is celebrating the 61st anniversary of independence by announcing an imminent peace. The United States, the European Union, Japan, and Norway are asking the Tamil rebels to surrender. The hospital of Pudukkudiyiruppu has been attacked for the fifth time in three days.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - The government of Sri Lanka wants the Catholic priests present in the areas of fighting to go to the buffer zones under army control, taking the civil population with them.

President Mahinda Rajapaksa himself has made the request to Archbishop Mario Zenari, the apostolic nuncio to the country, on the occasion of their meeting on February 2, at Temple Trees. The president asked the pontifical representative to inform all the religious present in the area of fighting between Tamil rebels and government forces. The Catholic priests and sisters are living with the refugees in the districts of Mannar, Vavuniya, Mullaitivu, and Kilinochchi. Rajapaksa says that, if they heed the request to move to the areas under the control of the military, they will contribute to the government's effort to help the population in the north, and to free it from the oppression of terrorism.

Meanwhile, military operations continue in the area around Mullaittivu, and Colombo says that within a few days, the rebel forces will be defeated. The government continues to dispute the number of refugees reported by the humanitarian organizations (Colombo says that there are 113,800 of these, as opposed to the 230-250,000 as stated by the UN and Red Cross), and news has come from the hospital of Pudukkudiyiruppu in Vanni of the fifth bombing in three days: 12 have reportedly been killed in the latest attack. The Red Cross says that it has been told by the government to evacuate the hospital and abandon the building.

Meanwhile, today the country is celebrating the 61st anniversary of its independence, acclaiming its victories over the Tamil Tigers, proclaiming the imminent arrival of peace, and announcing a new era of freedom and harmony among the ethnic groups.

In his address to the nation, the president has invited the Sri Lankans who have emigrated to return to their country, but the enthusiasm of the institutions, including the majority of Buddhist monks, is not echoed in the various areas of civil society, and is raising violent criticism on the part of human rights activists and the population in the northern part of the country.

Sarath Fernando, head of the Movement of National Land & Agriculture Research, tells AsiaNews: "The desire for peace is being used to win a war against the desire of Tamil and Muslim people, who aspire to have their dignity, culture, and independence as ethnic communities who have lived in the country for a long time."

The archbishop of Colombo, Oswald Gomis, says that "the time has come to restore the rule of law in our country. Both in the north and the south, people should feel free and be able to exercise the freedom that is their birthright."

Fr. Steevan Singarayar, of the missionary order Sons of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, says that "Today by force we are trying to celebrate. By killing our own people we try to find glory in the defeat of our own brothers and sisters. It is obviously a day celebrated only by Sinhalese. The Tamils have no hope for tomorrow. Let the international community and Indian government help the Tamils to find a solution and celebrate freedom with dignity and pride."

Meanwhile, the international community is asking the Tamil Tigers to surrender, and is calling for an immediate temporary ceasefire from both sides of the conflict. On February 3, the United States, Europe, Japan, and Norway published a document coordinated by U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British foreign minister David Miliband.

The four countries had directed the 2003 Tokyo international conference on the development of Sri Lanka. Now they "call on the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam to discuss with the government of Sri Lanka the modalities for ending hostilities, including the laying down of arms, renunciation of violence, acceptance of the government’s offer of amnesty; and participating as a political party in a process to achieve a just and lasting political solution."

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See also
Religious personnel under Wanni bombings
10/02/2009
Columbo army creates safe zone for civilians fleeing war
23/01/2009
Apostolic nuncio: priests will stay with people in conflict zone
05/02/2009
Government to reopen road to Jaffna . . . for the time being
20/11/2006
Bishops request Christmas ceasefire. Sri Lankan government says no
19/12/2008