Jaffna: two priests leave parish under threat
The two priests remain anonymous for security reasons. One escaped thanks to a miracle: the people's intervention proved crucial as they warned him of the danger. The Justice and Peace Commission said their cases, and the disappearance of Fr Jim Brown, could be a warning to the Church to stop its work for the civilian population.
Jaffna (AsiaNews) Two Catholic priests in Jaffna, northern Sri Lanka, are said to be in mortal danger and have left their parishes for fear of meeting the same fate as Fr Jim Brown, who disappeared on 20 August.
As days pass without any news of Fr Jim 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. Some believe Fr Jim Brown's "disappearance" was intended to serve as a warning to the Church to abdicate its leadership role in justice and human rights.
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 Jim 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."
The Church must shoulder much of the burden of relief and human rights work partly because, according to the CPR, the authorities place considerable restrictions on non-governmental organisations, be they local, national and international.
The beleaguered civilians of Jaffna peninsula need all the help they can get. Since clashes broke out on 11 August between the warring parties, they have been trapped in crossfire and cut off from the rest of the country, so that they are fast running out of vital supplies. Over 42,000 people have been displaced and an untold number have been killed.